Al McGuire's stunning triumph and tearful goodby at the NCAA basketball finals in Atlanta showed that he is more than a street-corner aphorist, a barroom philosopher, a guy who makes his own and singular way. The soul of the man is this: he is a winner—last Monday night, today, forever. Seashells and balloons, Al.
To the end McGuire entertained and enthralled us, indulging in the bizarre behavior that has characterized him and his teams for 20 years. But when it came time to finish his career, there he was on the sidelines, his back straight, calling out the plays on a rainy night in Georgia when Marquette outplayed and outhustled North Carolina 67-59.
After announcing his retirement midway through his 13th year at Marquette, McGuire took to ridiculing the involvement of grown men in a game, perhaps obscuring his true feelings. But eight seconds from the finish, when the meaning of his first and last NCAA championship swept over him, he began to sob on the bench, left the court alone and paced in the empty locker room, a towel to his eyes. "I want to be alone," he said. "I'm not afraid to cry."
As always he dominated the scene. "When you think of Marquette, you think of Al," Guard Butch Lee said Monday afternoon while McGuire raced around on his motorcycle. That night, he and his players arrived at the Omni only 45 minutes before the tipoff, barely enough time to dress. Early in the game he kicked the scorer's table so hard he limped all night. Minutes into the second half, as North Carolina, led by Mike O'Koren, who scored the first four baskets, roared back from a 39-27 deficit and McGuire ranted on the sideline, his wife Pat stood in the stands, pleading for him to sit down.
April 4, 1977
But Al McGuire was not going to blow this one. North Carolina edged on top 45-43 with 13:48 left and a short time later went to its vaunted four corners offense, a tactic McGuire had anticipated and which came to naught. The Warriors sagged underneath to take away the back-door play and, directed by Lee, who scored 19 points and was named the game's outstanding player, were patient on offense. Over the next 12 minutes, thanks in part to its own slowdown tactics, the Tar Heels scored only four points.
Once it had regained the lead with a little more than six minutes to go, Marquette taunted North Carolina with its delay game, and hit on 16 of 17 free throws while the Tar Heels fumbled away the ball and missed the open shots.
There was one last uneasy moment for Marquette. With the Warriors leading 53-49 with less than two minutes left, Bernard Toone was accidentally poked in the eye by O'Koren. When Toone reacted angrily and elbowed O'Koren, the officials gave Toone one free throw for O'Koren's foul, which he missed. But the officials further ruled that Toone had committed a technical foul—two free throws—which Walter Davis took and made. Now it was 53-51 Marquette and a jump ball. But Marquette won the tip, North Carolina started fouling and McGuire's ultimate victory was secure.
It was perhaps inevitable that the final game did not match either semifinal in intensity or excitement. The total margin of victory in Saturday's games, three points, was the closest in NCAA history. McGuire had expressed his concern about North Carolina-Charlotte when he said to its coach, Lee Rose, "There are 100 schools in the country with names like yours and I can beat them all. But I'm not sure I can beat yours."
Yet in the opening minutes Marquette seemed ready not only to beat Charlotte but also to humiliate it. The jittery 49ers had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (three) and trailed 23-9 with less than seven minutes remaining in the half.
But Marquette, which had played fitfully much of this season—one reason it had the worst record (23-7) of the final four—was not able to put the 49ers away. With Rose whistling encouragement from the bench and Cornbread Maxwell blocking shots and starting to score, Charlotte rallied to trail only 25-22 at intermission.
UNCC's zone press bothered Marquette at the start of the second half, and when Lew Massey hit a jumper with 2½ minutes gone, Charlotte had the lead for the first time. After that it was a seesaw game. With about four minutes remaining, Massey put Charlotte up by one. When Marquette missed a shot, the 49ers rebounded and whittled away the seconds until Melvin Watkins was fouled with 1:41 left. He made both free throws and UNCC led 47-44, looking as if it were ready for Monday night.
But Lee cut the margin to one with a 22-foot jump shot from the top of the circle. Maxwell was fouled with 49 seconds left and missed. Marquette rebounded and got the ball to Lee, who again hit on a clutch jumper, this one putting Marquette back in the lead. Then Massey missed an 18-foot jumper and the Warriors' Gary Rosenberger was fouled as he went in for a breakaway layup with 13 seconds remaining. This was a chance to hush sweet Charlotte for good.
UNCC called time, partly to shake up Rosenberger. To keep him loose, McGuire started punching him on the shoulder, whereupon Jerome Whitehead, the game's leading scorer with 21 points, turned on McGuire. "He thought I was pulling my psycho act again," Al said.
Rosenberger missed his first shot, however, so that when he made the second, Marquette's lead was only two points and Charlotte was alive. Barely. With 10 seconds left, the 49ers worked the ball to Maxwell, who drove the middle and sent up an off-balance shot that somehow went in. 49-49. Three seconds left. Time out, Marquette.
Onto the court marched McGuire. "I wasn't out there to do my Jimmy Durante act," he said later. "I wanted to check the height of the clock." McGuire was concerned that Lee's inbound pass from the baseline might hit the Omni's huge clock-and-scoreboard above midcourt. If that happened, the ball would go to Charlotte under the Marquette basket, with three seconds still remaining. McGuire was also worried that Lee might hurl the ball too far, that it would sail out of bounds. If so, see above.
Lee whipped the ball far downcourt, much as the Russians did in the historic game against the U.S. in the Munich Olympics. It glanced off Bo Ellis' fingers at the foul line, went through Maxwell's hands and was caught by Whitehead, who threw up a lunging layup. Maxwell went up with him and partly blocked the shot, but the ball ricocheted off the backboard and through as half the arena raced to join Referee Paul Galvan at the scorer's table. Had Whitehead's shot beaten the clock? "McGuire was going crazy," said Charlotte reserve Ken Angel. "I thought it was going to be a prizefight."
Suddenly McGuire, ever the actor, emerged from the crowd with a resigned look on his face, his shoulders hunched and his arms spread woefully. Lee put an arm around McGuire and hugged him as the Marquette fans burst into cheers. Score the goal. "It was a bad way to end the season," said Cornbread, who was outstanding in defeat.
For a while it appeared that North Carolina never would make it to the final. In its semifinal against Nevada-Las Vegas, Guard Phil Ford seemed tired and had seven turnovers in the first half, and only O'Koren's back-door buckets kept the Tar Heels close. Carolina made 15 baskets underneath but trailed 49-43. "I didn't think their long jump shots could keep going in," Dean Smith said later.
Early in the final half, Vegas streaked ahead by 10, but Center Larry Moffett was hit in the nose and had to leave the game. Vegas seemed rattled. The Tar Heels, led by O'Koren and Rich Yonakor, scored 14 of the next 16 points to take the lead. With 15:40 remaining and Carolina up a basket, Smith signaled for the four corners. Ford responded with a drive down the middle, and Las Vegas was playing catchup the rest of the way, forcing turnovers, but then inexplicably forcing shots. "We were very unorganized," said Forward Eddie Owens. "Whoever got it, shot it. We knew if they got a half-point lead they would go into the four corners."
Carolina showed signs of cracking near the end when Tony Smith's jumpers brought Las Vegas to within two with a minute left. Then John Kuester sank five straight free throws, and Davis intercepted a pass underneath. The Tar Heels won 84-83, Vegas cutting the margin from three with a basket at the buzzer. "It was like a schoolyard game," said O'Koren, who finished with 31 points. "Except they weren't crackin' heads on D. They'd lunge one way, I'd be gone back door the other."
But on Monday night Marquette kept the back door—as well as the front door—closed.