Forty-four years ago tonight, North Carolina State beat South Carolina 44-39 in double overtime to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball Tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina. That wasn’t supposed to happen. And it left the captain of the team, Bobby Cremins, so heartbroken, he and another player on the team fled into the mountains of North Carolina for several days before they could return to the South Carolina campus in Columbia.
Here’s why. In those days the winner of the ACC post-season tournament got the conference berth in the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. There were only half a dozen teams in the NCAA field, so there was no room for a South Carolina team that had romped to an undefeated 14-0 record against other ACC teams during the regular season. The Gamecocks were one of the top teams in the country in 1970, but their star player, John Roche, went down with a bad ankle sprain in the semifinals of the conference tournament against Wake Forest. Roche basically played on one leg in the final game loss to North Carolina State and South Carolina’s season was over.
“It was really heartbreaking for me,” Cremins says more than 40 years later. “I didn’t respond very well. I was an emotional mess. I wish now I would have dealt with that a little bit better. But I was just too heartbroken to go back to school. I finally drifted back. I don’t even know how I got back. I think we hitchhiked back.”
That was the end of Cremins’ college playing career. But he went on to be a great coach. When his Georgia Tech team won the ACC championship on their way to the Final Four in 1990, the Yellow Jackets did it in Charlotte. That was the first time the tournament was played there since 1970, when his great South Carolina team lost in Charlotte.
There was heartbreak for another college basketball team in 1970. Mark Scott, news director emeritus at WBFO in Buffalo reminded me that St. Bonaventure, the small Franciscan school near Buffalo, also had a great team that season, led by center Bob Lanier. He was the main reason St. Bonaventure made the Final Four. But Lanier didn’t get to play in that Final Four. He had suffered a season ending knee injury in the regional final game against Villanova.
That regional final game was played on South Carolina’s home court in Columbia. I don’t think Bobby Cremins was watching.
- Bobby Cremins, captain of the 1970 South Carolina Gamecocks men’s basketball team, at the University of South Carolina.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
But our next story is really about March sadness. It's about a lost basketball game in 1970, 44 years ago tonight, in Charlotte, North Carolina, a loss that lingers still, so many years later. HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock tells us about it.
ALEX ASHLOCK, BYLINE: Back in 1970, they didn't even call it the big dance. There were only 25 teams in the NCAA basketball tournament field. South Carolina wasn't one of them, although everyone expected them to be.
BOBBY CREMINS: We thought we had something really, really special, because we had the pieces.
ASHLOCK: Bobby Cremins was one of the pieces. He was South Carolina's senior point guard and captain. Cremins was part of a pipeline of Irish Catholic kids recruited from New York City by South Carolina coach Frank McGuire in the '60s. McGuire was also a native New Yorker, and South Carolina fans fell in love with him and his players and their playground flare.
CREMINS: They adopted us, and we wanted to bring them a championship.
ASHLOCK: The player the South Carolina fans took to most was shooting guard John Roche, who became an All-American and a two-time ACC player of the year. Southern kids were suddenly crossing themselves when they went to the free-throw line, because that's what John Roche did. And everything he did on the basketball floor often left his coach, Frank McGuire, at a loss for words. Here he is in an interview on WIS TV.
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FRANK MCGUIRE: John Roche in particular, he's hard to describe, because he was like describing somebody in music. John Roche is probably one of the finest basketball players that ever played basketball.
ASHLOCK: Frank McGuire had already coached North Carolina to a national title. But when he came to South Carolina in 1964, football was king there. But the school built him a new gymnasium for his basketball team. And with McGuire's coaching and recruiting, basketball made inroads. Hoops started springing up around the state. And with players like Cremins and Roche, South Carolina became a basketball powerhouse in the ACC. That didn't sit well with fans of teams like Duke in North Carolina, who were used to dominating the Atlantic Coast Conference.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NEWS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You want to yokel(ph), you want? You are really a yokel. Put the yoke on television, would you? Make him feel good.
ASHLOCK: McGuire and his team were often heckled when they were on the road. And Bobby Cremins remembers opposing fans spitting on his coach. The players threw water back at them.
CREMINS: We got a reputation. People got very jealous of John. And, again, you know, we were from New York, and sometimes, we were a little brash.
ASHLOCK: People were really jealous of Roche in 1970. He put on some incredible performances. And the road against North Carolina State, he poured in 38 points. And three nights later, at North Carolina, he scored 28. South Carolina finished their conference schedule unscarred, 14-0. But going undefeated meant nothing in those days. The only way South Carolina was going to get into the NCAA tournament was by winning the post-season conference tournament. And Bobby Cremins remembers the pressure when he and his teammates took the floor for their first game against Clemson.
CREMINS: And the first day was the most intense, because every team would play. And always, always, there would be some upset the first day. And it was, you know, it was just a pressure-packed tournament. But we felt good. You know, we were playing in Charlotte. Actually, we - our scare came the first game.
ASHLOCK: There was no shot clock in 1970, so Clemson held the ball, but South Carolina survived the slowdown and won the game 34-33.
CREMINS: And that kind of relieved all of us. And then, in the semifinals, we were really taking care of business against Wake Forest. We had it going. We had about four or five minutes to go in the game. John and I had a two on one, and John faked a pass to me, and the defender stuck his leg out and tripped John. I'll never forget the way he went down. He went down so hard. I knew something was wrong. And it was really, really - it was shocking.
ASHLOCK: Roche had a serious ankle injury, but he suited up and tried to play the next night in the championship game against North Carolina State.
CREMINS: He played a courageous game. But, unfortunately, we were not the same, and we lost in double overtime. And it was, you know, really, really heartbreaking for me, and I didn't respond very well. I didn't accept very well, or respond. I was an emotional mess. I wish now, in hindsight, that I would have dealt with that a little bit better. But I was just too heartbroken to go back to school.
ASHLOCK: Cremins was so heartbroken, he and a teammate, Corky Carnevale, just disappeared into the mountains of North Carolina, where they stayed with a friend.
CREMINS: It was about a week to 10 days. I drifted - I finally drifted back. I don't even know how I got back. Corky and I hitchhiked. I think we hitchhiked back.
ASHLOCK: For Cremins, his college playing days were over. He graduated and left campus. And the next season, 1971, Sports Illustrated featured John Roche on its cover, as he led the South Carolina Gamecocks to their one and only ACC championship. Announcer Bob Fulton has the final call for the Gamecock IMG Sports Network.
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BOB FULTON: One second left: South Carolina is about to win the championship. There's Roche passing in, caught by Douglas, fires way down the court. And the ballgame is all over, and the Gamecocks from South Carolina have won their first...
ASHLOCK: John Roche went on to play pro basketball for nine seasons. After he retired, he became a lawyer. He now works in Denver. Coach Frank McGuire retired in 1980. Before that, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. When McGuire died in 1994, he was eulogized in South Carolina like a head of state.
After he came down from the mountains, Bobby Cremins got into coaching, first as McGuire's assistance at South Carolina, and later at Appalachian State and Georgia Tech. He finally won that elusive ACC championship with Georgia Tech in 1985, and again five years later, when the tournament was played in Charlotte for the first time in the 20 years since his bitter disappointment there in 1970.
CREMINS: That was one of my goals once I got into coaching, was to someday, to win a championship as a coach that I lost as a player. But after that game, I remember we get on the team bus, and we went right past the building where I had lost that game in 1970. So I told the bus driver to pull over. And I got out the bus, and I yelled at the arena. I said, I got you back, you son of a bitch. And I got back on the bus. And my Georgia Tech players thought I was crazy.
ASHLOCK: Cremins guided that 1990 Georgia Tech team to the Final Four. He won a total of 570 games in his career. Today, he says he has no regrets. But what happened in that game against Wake Forest, all the way back in 1970, still nags at him.
CREMINS: You know, when people say, you know, if you had to live your life over, you know, what would you do differently? And I would say: I would make sure John Roche passed me that ball and get the hell out of that defender's way. That's for sure. That's one of the things I would do.
ASHLOCK: Then you would have gone to the basket, not him.
YOUNG: Oh, that's tough. Former South Carolina player, Bobby Cremins, speaking with HERE AND NOW's Alex Ashlock.
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.