Moments after that other North Carolina school, the unheralded one from Charlotte, had made a mockery of Michigan's No. 1 ranking, 49er Coach Lee Rose strode across the Rupp Arena court. A baby-faced man with prematurely gray hair, Rose grabbed a microphone from play-by-play announcer John Kilgo of station WAYS in Charlotte.
"We made it, baby," rasped Rose. "We beat the No. 1 team in the country. Now ain't that something?"
Ain't it indeed. All season the 49ers had played in the obscurity of something called the Sun Belt Conference, in the shadow of their famous neighbors from Chapel Hill, and at the bottom of the weekly wire-service ratings. Every time Rose tried to tell somebody that his team was legitimate or that star Center Cedric (Cornbread) Maxwell was "the best player, pound for pound, in the country," the press yawned and checked the radio for the latest ACC results. Hush, hush, sweet Charlotte.
But Rose had finally found some respect in the Mideast regional in Lexington, Ky. In a field that included sassy Syracuse, dynamic Detroit and marvelous Michigan, Charlotte was what the folks in horse-race country call a long shot.
March 28, 1977
So, of course, Charlotte came out Thursday night and simply squeezed the juice out of what was regarded as a fine Syracuse team. Charlotte came at them with a suffocating 2-3 zone and a 6'8" center (Maxwell) who can bring the ball up court against pressure. The 49ers led 38-22 at halftime and when it was over, Cornbread had 19 points and Charlotte an 81-59 victory.
After watching Michigan outlast Detroit 86-81 in a big-city rumble, Rose hustled back to his hotel to plot strategy with his assistant coaches. Midway through the session, someone outside Rose's room tumbled down the stairs with a loud clatter. "Lord," said Rose, closing his eyes, "don't let that be Cornbread." It wasn't—just a clumsy drunk—so Rose turned his attention back to Michigan. Convinced that the Wolverines' outside shooting was shaky, at best, he concocted a defense in which his perimeter men played zone and 6'7" sophomore Kevin King played Michigan's talented center, Phil Hubbard, man-to-man inside. To stop Michigan, reasoned Rose, you had to stop Hubbard. In the war against Detroit, Hubbard had 22 points, 26 rebounds and was the key to Michigan's devastating fast break.
On Saturday Rose's strategy worked perfectly in the first half. The 49ers shut off Hubbard inside—he had only two points and three rebounds at halftime—and Michigan couldn't penetrate Charlotte's zone. Late in the half a 6'4" freshman named Chad Kinch roared down the baseline and exploded over Hubbard for an amazing dunk. Fouled on the play, Kinch hit the free throw to give Charlotte a 40-27 lead at intermission. Michigan, aroused, began to show its class in the second half. Sparked by speedy Rickey Green, the Wolverines played their man-to-man like maniacs and began to find Hubbard inside. With 12:11 to go, Green fed Hubbard to give Michigan a 49-48 lead—and Charlotte seemed in imminent danger of returning to wherever it is that teams like Charlotte spring from.
Instead, Charlotte showed more poise than its celebrated opponent. The 49ers switched to a spread offense and got four straight layups for a 58-55 lead. Then Steve Grote and Tom Staton, who were trying to take the ball away from Maxwell, fouled out. With 1:45 to go Charlotte had a 73-65 lead and suddenly everyone in Rupp Arena realized that Michigan was dead. The remaining moments were a free-throw contest that had no winner. The final score was Charlotte 75, Michigan 68, Experts 0.
As the game ended, Maxwell, who had 25 points and 13 rebounds, stretched out prone on the floor while delirious 49er fans danced around him. "I wanted the moment to soak in instead of letting it seep away," he said later.
In Atlanta the 49ers are bound to be fan favorites. How can that town resist an underdog Southern team with a star named Cornbread? If Charlotte survives the Al McGuire Show, it might get to play the Tar Heels in the NCAA (North Carolina Athletic Association) finals. That would present a problem for Barbara Massey. Her son, Lew, is a Charlotte star while her brother, Walter Davis, is a Tar Heel stalwart. What's a body to do if they happen to play? "Oh, Lordy," she said, rolling her eyes, "I don't even want to think about it."