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One of the Best to Never Win It: The 1976-77 Tar Heels

What if Phil Ford, Tommy LaGarde, and Walter Davis were healthy in 1977?

Dean Smith

To continue with the theme for this week, this is a repost of this article from August 18, 2018.

February 1977. The North Carolina Tar Heels are 16-4 and are emerging out of a late January slump where they lost three of four. UNC completed the season sweep of a talented and balanced Maryland team with a 97-70 victory at Carmichael Auditorium. According to Coach Dean Smith in his book A Coach’s Life, “It was one of the best games a team of mine ever played.”

At the next practice, the promise of this team took a sharp turn.

Tommy LaGarde, the 6-10 senior center for the Tar Heels, was having the best season of his collegiate career. In what ended up being his final stat line for that season, he was averaging 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game through 20 games. His 31 blocks that season remains the second-highest single season total in Carolina history.

During practice prior to their game versus Tulane, LaGarde injured his knee. LaGarde recounted the incident in the book North Carolina Tar Heels: Where Have You Gone? by Scott Fowler:

We were in practice, doing some drill we normally didn’t do—full court one-on-one. I was going against Jeff Wolf. He was guarding me, and as I stopped to shoot a jump shot, he lost balance and he hit me. My knee straightened and just popped. And that was it.

Even with the likes of senior forward Walter Davis, senior guard John Kuester, and junior guard Phil Ford, the championship aspirations of this team were in doubt with the injury to their dominant man in the middle.

Despite the blow to talent, the Tar Heels stepped up and finished a remarkable season. However, the wins that followed would not be without their own challenges.

Carolina marched to the ACC regular season championship with a 9-3 record, earning the top seed in the ACC Tournament after winning the remainder of their conference games to close out the regular season.

In the semifinals of the ACC Tournament at the Greensboro Coliseum, Carolina handled NC State with a 70-56 victory, but it was not without a cost.

Davis, who led the way in that game with 17 points and ended up as the Heels’ second-leading scorer that season, broke a finger on his shooting hand in the game versus the Wolfpack.

Even with the injury, Davis played in the ACC Tournament championship game. It was a rematch of the previous season’s conference title game, and the Tar Heels sought revenge over their loss to Virginia in 1976.

Despite Ford’s 19 points in the first half, Carolina was behind by one at halftime.

But the game was far from finished. Virginia extended its lead to 64-56 with 7:08 left in the game. With 5:45 to play and Carolina down 64-61, Ford fouled out and the point guard responsibilities shifted to Kuester.

Bruce Buckley, a 6-9 senior forward, gave Carolina the lead with 3:37 left in the game. Kuester was perfect from the free throw line down the stretch, and UNC won 75-69.

With Davis playing hurt, freshman forward Mike O’Koren stepped up. O’Koren’s 21 points, combined with Ford’s 26 points, fueled the Tar Heel offense. Kuester, for his clutch play and lockdown defensive efforts, was named Tournament MVP.

In the First Round of the East Region, the Heels were without Davis. He required surgery and had three screws placed in his finger. The game was played at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, and Carolina trailed Purdue by two at the half. Behind the effort of Ford’s 27 points, UNC won the game 69-66.

Just as Davis returned from injury, another obstacle popped up for the Heels. Carolina faced off against Notre Dame in the East Region Semifinal on St. Patrick’s Day. Once again, UNC was behind at the half. This time, Carolina was down by 10. During the second half, the Irish lead grew by as much as 14 points.

However, the Tar Heels rallied. Knotted at 75 with just over a minute to play, Ford hyperextended his elbow during a scramble in the lane. With Ford in noticeably in pain, Kuester handled the ball going up the court after a timeout with 1:16 left. Later the possession, Ford drove in the lane and hit the deck hard after a foul on the shot.

Ford hit both free throws. On the ensuing possession, a tipped ball by the Carolina defense causes a dash for the loose ball. Ford dove for the ball and wound up on the floor again. Notre Dame reset and scored to tie the game at 77.

Ford, back at the point, was fouled on a shot with just two seconds on the clock. With ice water in his veins, he nailed both free throws to give UNC the two-point advantage. Ford finished with 29 points that night. A heave by the Fighting Irish bounced off the rim and Carolina hangs on for the 79-77 victory.

Below is the final sequence with less than a minute and a half to play:

The Heels had just a day of rest between the Notre Dame victory and the East Regional Final versus Kentucky. Ford, now completely feeling the effects of his hyperextended elbow, was largely a non-factor against the Wildcats. He got into foul trouble early and only played 15 minutes of the game. He spent most of the game icing his elbow on the bench.

Kuester ran the offense instead, and for the only time in the 1977 tournament, the Tar Heels had a lead at halftime. UNC led UK 53-41 at the break.

In the second half, Kuester took over Ford’s role as master of the Four Corners. He did not commit a single turnover and finished with 19 points, including making 13 of 14 free throws. Broken finger and all, Davis led UNC scorers with 21 points and O’Koren added 14 as the Tar Heels worked the Four Corners to a 79-72 victory.

Kuester’s consistent play and ability to step up when the pressure was on earned him Regional MVP honors.

The Tar Heels faced UNLV in the Final Four. The Runnin’ Rebels, led by senior forward Eddie Owens, were one of the tournament favorites.

UNLV, with their high-paced attack, jumped to an early lead and controlled the tempo. The Tar Heels were down 49-43 at halftime.

The Rebels extended their lead to 10 in the second half when Coach Smith broke out the Four Corners again. With a key injury to UNLV’s center three minutes into the half, Carolina went on a 14-0 run to capture the lead 59-55, and never looked back from there. UNLV continued to fight, though, and it was not until Kuester hit two free throws with 12 seconds left that the 84-83 victory was sealed.

This game put the freshman O’Koren on the map. He scored 31 points, 20 in the first half, and pulled down eight rebounds. Davis was perfect from the field, scoring seven buckets on seven shots and adding five free throws for 19 points.

The Tar Heel now faced Marquette in the National Championship. The Warriors had just knocked off Charlotte, one of the first Cinderellas in tournament history, and were being billed as a “team of destiny” due to their excellent record (just seven losses) and a coach, Al McGuire, who had announced that the current season would be his last.

Marquette boasted a tall front line and a quick back court. In the championship, Coach Smith remarked, “it seemed as though everything dropped for them [in the first half], while we had to labor for anything offensively.” The Tar Heels found themselves down 39-27 at the half, but as many of the games that postseason had already proved, it was not over yet.

In the first seven minutes of the second half, Carolina went on a 18-4 run. With the score tied at 43 with about 14 minutes to go, UNC went into the Four Corners offense. This coaching decision has been one of the most scrutinized in Coach Smith’s career. This was Smith’s justification for the decision:

Some critics have questioned the decision every since. But they didn’t question it when we used it to beat Notre Dame and Kentucky to get to the Final Four. You don’t change your coaching just because you’re in a championship game. The Four Corners is what had gotten us there in the first place. It had been our stopper all year. In fact, we nicknamed it the “Goose Gossage” after the famed relief pitcher because it was so effective at preserving a lead.

After that opening 14 minute stretch, Kuester and O’Koren were given a breather. But no whistles came while they continued to sit and Coach Smith did not want to call a timeout. In the absence of these two players, Marquette regained the lead and never looked back. The Tar Heels fell 67-59 in the National Championship.

Coach Smith reflected on that 1977 season like this:

Coach Guthridge called that our most amazing year.We had more huggers that year – that means when the game is over we are all hugging in the dressing room. We lost our All-America center Tom LaGarde in February; then we had a great run. Walter couldn’t shoot against Notre Dame, but Phil happened to make free throws even with his hyper-extended elbow. We held the ball against Kentucky in the second half to go to the Final Four. Then O’Koren came on and was great against UNLV. We lost to a really good Marquette team. Jimmy Boylan was terrific against us in the final – he once called wanting to transfer to Carolina, but I suggested he call Coach McGuire instead.

The loss in the national final snapped an amazing 15-game win streak for the Tar Heels. Their last loss before Marquette on March 28 was on January 29 versus Clemson.

Carolina finished third in the coaches’ poll and fifth in the media poll.

In 1977, Ford was named a Consensus first-team All-American, while Ford and Davis were first-team All-ACC selections.

The 1977 squad featured five NBA first round draft picks: Davis (fifth overall in 1977), LaGarde (ninth overall in 1977), Ford (second overall in 1978), Dudley Bradley (13th overall in 1979), and O’Koren (sixth overall in 1980).

This was Coach Smith’s fifth Final Four team and his team once again fell short of the ultimate prize. Was he snakebitten? Would he ever win the big one?

We all know how those questions would be answered, and perhaps with a win in 1977, some other things might not have happened the way they did in the coming years.

It is an interesting mental exercise, though, to ask “What if?”, especially with the unfortunate circumstances and incredible perseverance of the gifted 1976-77 team.