The term “Team of Destiny” has become one of the most overused cliches in sports. It has been applied to teams with low seeds and that make late-season runs, teams with unlikely comebacks and furious finishes, teams with off-the-court-drama or long-suffering fanbases, or it can just be a team that thinks it’s going to win and then...does. However, for the 1957 North Carolina Tar Heels, there truly is no other moniker to apply. For their undefeated record, their series of close shaves, and their fearlessness under pressure, this team was destined to win a title. And on back-to-back nights in Kansas City, MO one of the greatest teams in college basketball history gave the sport two of its greatest games ever.
This is the first.
Before Dean Smith, there was Frank McGuire. Before the “Carolina Way” and the “Four Corners,” there was the foul-mouthed Irish New Yorker and his alligator skin shoes. Brought in from St. John’s to end the dominance of NC State and Everett Case, McGuire mined the high schools of his hometown NYC to build a powerhouse on Tobacco Road. By the 56-57 season he had succeeded.
His starting five, known around the Tar Heel State as “The Four Catholics and a Jew,” all hailed from the Tri-State area. From Brooklyn came star guard Joe Quigg and big man Pete Brennan, from across the river in Jersey came the sure-handed Tommy Kearns, and from the Bronx came the versatile Bob Cunningham and sharp-shooting Lennie Rosenbluth. Kearns, Brennan, Quigg, and Cunningham all were juniors and had been well-regarded Catholic high school league stars in NYC, Quigg in particular, but it was the lesser known high-schooler Rosenbluth who was the star. The lone senior in the starting lineup, Lennie averaged 28 points per game in 1957 (a school record) and was named National Player of the Year.
The merry band of Tar Heels had a number of close shaves on their way to an undefeated season. In December, on the road against South Carolina, the Tar Heels trailed by two with time running down. Backup guard Stan Groll inexplicably started dribbling the clock out and McGuire called time. Furiously, he demanded his guard explain himself. “Look at the scoreboard coach!” said Groll. “Carolina’s up two!”
“You dumb son of a _____!” howled McGuire. “That’s SOUTH Carolina!” Out of the timeout, the Tar Heels scored to tie it up and won in overtime.
A few weeks later, their undefeated streak looked to be dead against Maryland at Cole Field House. The Terps led by 4 with 40 seconds left and had possession of the ball. McGuire called a timeout. “We’ve lost this game, boys,” he said. “Keep your heads high and don’t anyone get into a fight. We’ll start a new win streak next week.” The players stared at each other in disbelief.
“Coach, are you nuts?” said Rosenbluth. “We’re gonna win!” Tommy Kearns stole the inbounding pass and scored, triggering a Tar Heel comeback. UNC won in double overtime to go to 16-0.
The Tar Heels finished the regular season undefeated and 14-0 in the ACC. However, it was all for naught if they didn’t win the ACC Tournament, with the NCAA model only allowing automatic bids to tourney winners. In the Semifinal, the Tar Heels trailed Wake Forest by a point in the dying seconds of the game. Rosenbluth drove the lane and fired up a hook shot from the foul line through contact. He scored it plus the foul. Demon Deacons fans protest to this day that it was a charge (and they might have a point; Lennie lowered his shoulder). But once again the Tar Heels prevailed and won their rematch with South Carolina to take home the ACC title.
After that, it was smooth sailing to Kansas City, where the Michigan State Spartans awaited in the National Semifinal game. On the other side of the bracket were the defending champion San Francisco Dons and the 2nd-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. Michigan State were the underdogs of the tournament. At one point they had been 4-7 on the season and their only time ranked in the AP Poll was the final week of the season. But they had won 12 of their last 13 games and had knocked off Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats in the Elite Eight. Led by guard Jack Quiggle and big man John Green, they were playing as well as any team in the country. And, like the Tar Heels, they had experience playing in close games...
But nothing could possibly have prepared either team for what took place: There were 31 lead changes. 21 ties. At halftime it was 29-29, and in the dying seconds of regulation, it was 58-58. After UNC missed their shot to win the game, Sparty’s Jack Quiggle heaved up a shot from halfcourt. He made it...but it was after the horn. Once more the charmed Tar Heels had escaped. Overtime.
In the first overtime, exhaustion began to take over. Both teams only used eight players for the whole game and with little respite, the rotation players were wearing down. However, Michigan State had seized control: It was 64-62 Spartans, and John Green was heading to the line for two free throws. There was no three point line: If he made just one he would seal Carolina’s fate.
But Green missed both and big man Pete Brennan grabbed the rebound. UNC had no timeouts and had to go the length of the floor. Brennan didn’t pass off to a guard, however; he turned upcourt and went coast to coast, firing up a jumper at the buzzer. It went in. Tie game. Double Overtime.
The second extra period was even more of a slog: Both teams only managed two points and the period ended 66 all. By the third extra period, three UNC starters Quigg, Brennan, and Cunningham had all fouled out. Rosenbluth, meanwhile, was having one of the worst shooting nights of his career: He would finish 11-42 (!!!) from the field for the game. He did it with his defense instead: A pair of clutch steals set up Tommy Kearns free throws that finally opened up the slightest of breathing room for the Tar Heels. The third overtime ended 74-70 UNC.
Rosenbluth finished with 29 points despite his brutal shooting night. Cunningham added 21 and 12 boards while Brennan, the savior of the season, had 14 and 17. McGuire’s exhausted team had survived had survived yet again, but were only halfway home: The following night they would face the Kansas Jayhawks. Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas Jayhawks.