(This Saturday, March 13, 2021, will mark fifty years since South Carolina won its only ACC basketball tournament championship. The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, “The Wilderness – University of South Carolina Athletics in the Independent Era”)
It was a Saturday evening, March 13, 1971. Temperatures were warm, in the upper 60’s. Bradford Pears, with their pungent, white blooms, were beginning to flower in Greensboro. Jessamine and Honeysuckle too perfumed the early-evening air as fans of both North and South Carolina made their way, tickets in hand, to the newly renovated Greensboro Coliseum. The air was peaceful, calm, belying the coming storms, both on and off the basketball court. Spring would officially arrive a week later, but winter had a score yet to settle.
South Carolina finished the 1970-71 regular season second to North Carolina, and as many had predicted, the two schools would meet in the tournament finals. The Gamecocks had dispatched Maryland 71-63 in the opening round and dominated N.C. State 69-56 in the semi-final. Likewise, the Tar Heels had taken care of business, eliminating Clemson and Virginia in rounds one and two.
After a game that saw the Gamecocks struggle mightily from the floor, UNC began to edge ahead late in the second half. With a 46-40 lead at the 4:34 mark, Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith went to his signature “Four Corners” offense, which was not engineered to produce points, rather to milk clock and keep the ball out of the hands of the opposing team.
This was long before the shot clock was implemented in college basketball, and many teams used this strategy to slow down high-powered opposing offenses. Earlier in the season in a game at College Park, Maryland, the Terrapins used a similar strategy to neutralize John Roche and the Gamecocks, resulting in a 4-3 halftime score before things picked up in the second half.
With no shot clock, the Gamecocks were forced to foul. UNC needed only to hit free throws to preserve their lead and escape with a win, something Smith’s Tar Heels had nearly perfected in those years. Remarkably, UNC missed the front end of five one-on-ones down the stretch. The Gamecocks responded, pulling within a point, 49-48 with 1:04 remaining. UNC’s Lee Dedmon and USC’s John Ribock exchanged free throws and the game was still within a point, 50-49 with 45 seconds left.
After a steal by USC’s Bob Carver resulted in a foul on Ribock’s attempted layup, Ribock made one of two free throws to knot it at 50 with 39 seconds remaining. The Gamecocks missed from the floor and the Tar Heel’s George Karl missed a one-on-one opportunity over the next 18 seconds.
The Tar Heels went up by one, 51-50, but when Karl could not connect on another one-on-one, USC’s Rick Aydlett rebounded with 20 seconds remaining and passed it off to 6’3” guard, Kevin Joyce. As Joyce drove the baseline for a shot he was tied-up by UNC’s 6’10” Dedmon, resulting in a jump ball.
Like the shot clock, the rule of alternating possessions for jump balls was years away, so the much smaller Joyce would have to jump against UNC’s big man Dedmon. To compound the mismatch, Joyce was recovering from a leg injury suffered earlier in the season. Tar Heel fans were planning their post-game celebrations. McGuire claimed he saw a UNC assistant with a pair of scissors for the post-game net cutting.
Following the jump ball, McGuire called a time out with six seconds on the clock. Given the mismatch on the jump ball, USC had no realistic expectation of controlling the tip. McGuire used the timeout to talk through strategies for stealing the ball after Dedmon controlled the tap. McGuire’s main bit of coaching advice to Joyce was to “jump to the moon, kid”.
During the timeout, tension mounted in the arena. UNC and USC pep bands alternated fight songs, filling the air with the strains of brass and a drumming battle rhythm. Confident Tar Heel fans awaited another title. Gamecock fans, agonized through the timeout, hoping for a miracle while bracing for the familiar gut punch of disappointment. Not a soul left their seats. The horn sounded and officials summoned the teams to the floor. Six seconds.
The teams came out of the timeout and took their places for the jump. Joyce could sense that Dedmon may have been a little complacent. He also noticed that, perhaps assuming Dedmon would control the tip, no UNC players lined up between the Gamecock’s 6’10” Tom Owens and the basket. As the official tossed the ball up, Joyce jumped “like he had springs in his legs”, managing to tip the ball to an unopposed Owens, who deftly wheeled around and laid the ball off the glass and into the basket, putting the Gamecocks up 52-51. As the final two seconds ticked away, UNC could not get a shot off and South Carolina held on to claim their first and only ACC Tournament Championship.
Pandemonium ensued among the Gamecock faithful. Radioman Bob Fulton, described the jubilation of the moment as the garnet-clad Gamecocks rushed the court in celebration – “…the ballgame is all over – they’re going wild on the court!” South Carolina partisans among the 15,170 inside Greensboro Coliseum were left jubilant, if emotionally drained after the dramatic finish.
South Carolina, by virtue of winning the tournament, went onto represent the ACC in the NCAA tournament, which included only 25 teams at the time. USC was slotted in the East Regional, which was played before a hostile and vocally anti-Gamecock crowd in Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum. The Gamecocks were matched against a powerful University of Pennsylvania team, which had won 27 straight games and was ranked 3rd in the nation.
The partisan ACC crowd cheered, not the ACC Champion, but for Penn, illustrating the bitterness that had developed between USC and the other ACC members.
Further illustrating that bitterness was end-of-season voting for ACC Coach of the Year and Player of the Year, which revealed strident anti-Gamecock sentiment among the North Carolina-dominated voting media. McGuire, in spite of winning the ACC Championship and guiding his team to an ACC-leading 6th place finish in national polls, did not factor into voting. UNC’s Smith won out, with Virginia’s Bill Gibson placing second. John Roche was denied a third straight Player of the Year recognition, as media members curiously voted 86-30 for Wake Forest’s Charlie Davis over Roche. This, despite South Carolina’s 20 and 15 point wins over Wake in the regular season.
Roche was selected a first team All-American by UPI and Basketball Weekly, among others, and was selected first team by NBA coaches for the annual College All-Star squad, while Davis was named neither first or second team.
In a disappointing NCAA tournament showing, South Carolina went into halftime down just a point, but Penn dominated the second half to win going away, 79-64. The NCAA Tournament hosted consolation games in those days, and the Gamecocks came up short in that one as well, losing a high-scoring affair to Fordham, by a score of 100-90.
The loss to Fordham was South Carolina’s final Basketball game as a member of the ACC. Though USC would compete in conference play in baseball that spring, the Gamecocks would leave the ACC officially on June 30 – just over three months after their greatest triumph in Greensboro.