Since the inception of the program in 1910, the North Carolina Tar Heels Men’s Basketball Team has played 3,060 games. Should they play another 3,060, they will still never surpass the one played on March 23rd, 1957. That night in Kansas City, an undefeated team made up of unlikely Tar Heel heroes squared off in enemy territory against the greatest individual force in the history of basketball. And what happened that night forever changed the program, the university, and college basketball as a whole.
Any explanation of this iconic moment in Carolina history begins with Frank McGuire. To the modern college basketball fan, UNC will always be the program of Dean Smith and Roy Williams. But it was the New York-born McGuire who built Chapel Hill’s first true powerhouse. Before venturing south, McGuire had been the head coach of St. John’s and had led them to the 1952 National title game. He was known and beloved throughout the Big Apple and nothing in his career suggested a southbound move.
But McGuire and his wife Pat had an infant son named Frankie who suffered from mental impairments and cerebral palsy. Raising him in an apartment building amid the chaos of 1950s NYC would be a herculean effort. So when the school in sleepy Chapel Hill came knocking, McGuire took the job. UNC was looking to break the in-state dominance of NC State’s Everett Case and their wealth of recruits from his home state Indiana. They were getting McGuire and his New York ballers.
Convincing those New York kids to head for Dixie was no mean feat: Parents, teachers, and even priests discouraged prospective recruits from joining McGuire’s team. The best players in NYC were Catholic and many were loath to attend school in the Protestant South. But McGuire managed to win over enough of them, along with the Jewish Lennie Rosenbluth, to form the core of the greatest team in Tar Heel history.
When we last left McGuire and his boys (#5 on this list), they had just stared oblivion in the face against Michigan State, surviving a waved-off buzzer-beater, game-sealing free throws, and making a buzzer-beater of their own to win in triple overtime. Exhausted, but still standing, McGuire’s battered heroes Rosenbluth, Pete Brennan, Tommy Kearns, Joe Quigg, and Bobby Cunningham settled down to watch the second game of the semifinals. It was a very different game from the one they had just seen.
The Tar Heels may have come into the Final Four undefeated, but their semifinal game had most decidedly been the undercard: The second matchup featured the defending national champions, the San Francisco Dons, against the #2 Kansas Jayhawks and Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain. In the era of radio, journalistic hyperbole, and word-of-mouth surrounding the world of sports, Chamberlain was a Paul Bunyan-type figure. He was larger than life as well as being just...well, larger. The average sports fan didn’t see him, they heard of him, and his preposterous stat lines. When the other three teams arrived in Kansas City, Order of Business #1 was getting over the psychological hurdle of facing the giant.
San Francisco’s big man, the 6’9 Art Day, tried to gain an edge right away: Approaching the center circle for tipoff, he sneered up at Wilt; “So you’re Mr. Chamberlain, huh?” Wilt glared down at him. Day attempted his first shot and Wilt, to use his own words “Crushed it.” Day looked at him in amazement, then nodded “Yep, you are Mr. Chamberlain.” Wilt burst out laughing: The game was already over. Kansas won 80-56, and Wilt finished with 32 points, 21 rebounds, and 7 blocks.
The Tar Heels watched from the stands, impressed but unafraid. ”We have to be physical with him,” said Pete Brennan. ”They’re letting him get too comfortable.”
Tommy Kearns took it even farther the next morning when talking to journalists: ”Talk about Chamberlain all you want; we’re cool. He won’t give us any jitters.”
Word got back to McGuire and in the pregame locker room he asked Kearns: ”Hey Tommy, I hear you’re not scared of Chamberlain. That right?”
”Good, cause you’re jumping against him.”
So when 7’1 Wilt Chamberlain walked to the center circle that night in Kansas City, he was confronted with 5’11 Tommy Kearns. Kearns made a meal of it: When the ref approached with the ball, he crouched down, jaw set, as if he were about to jump through the rafters. Chamberlain stared at him in bewilderment. He won the tip of course, Kearns didn’t even jump, but the message was already sent: No one on this team was afraid of Wilt and no one guy was going to try and beat him. This team would stick together and no one, not the Stilt, not the overwhelmingly pro-KU crowd, not anyone, was coming between them.
No, seriously, not anyone. Before tipoff, North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges arrived at courtside. The 3-OT thriller against Michigan State had been broadcast on TV and all of North Carolina was itching to see their boys in blue and white take on Wilt. Hodges had flown out to KC to see for himself. With the tickets for the game long since sold out, he needed a place to park himself and settled down on the bench right next to McGuire. Between the coach and his players. McGuire told him to move.
UNC and Kansas both started off the game with the same intentions: Take away the other’s star. UNC collapsed their defense inside around Chamberlain, no fewer than two players locked onto him at any time. Kansas’ shooters would be free to fire at will from outside, but Chamberlain wasn’t getting any free looks. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, played a box-and-one with Maurice King tailing Rosenbluth.
Carolina’s plan worked, KU’s didn’t: Wilt was bottled up and his teammates couldn’t make UNC pay early on, but Rosenbluth’s teammates let shots fly from all over the Jayhawk zone and knocked them down. Kearns, Brennan, and Joe Quigg all knocked down their first baskets. Quigg’s baskets were particularly vexing for Kansas, since he was Chamberlain’s cover and his ability to step out and hit jumpers changed the tenor of their defense: Dick Harp, the Kansas coach, switched to a 2-3 zone. This freed Rosenbluth, who began to hit shots of his own. Before long it was 19-7 UNC. Kansas finally began to pick up its offense late in the first half and at the end of 20, the Tar Heel lead was 29-22.
Led by Wilt, the Jayhawks fought back early in the second interval, as the jumpers that hadn’t been falling began to fall for the supporting cast. A 10-2 run midway through the half gave Kansas its first lead at 36-35. Chamberlain was beginning to dominate inside, so McGuire had his players foul every time he got the ball in the low post, forcing him to score from the line. This kept KU from taking over the game, but it also put several key Tar Heels in foul trouble.
With KU holding a three point lead with about seven minutes to go, Dick Harp had his players start to hold the ball to shorten the game. The Jayhawks didn’t attempt a shot for nearly five minutes of game action, but the Tar Heels couldn’t cut down the lead. Finally, McGuire had his team go out and pursue and break the stall technique. The Heels cut the lead to one with just under two minutes left, then disaster struck: Gene Elstun made a bucket plus the foul with 1:45 to go to put Kansas’ lead back at 44-41. But worse, the foul was on Lennie Rosenbluth and it was foul number five. UNC would have to go on without their National Player of the Year.
As it had so many times before, it looked like curtains for UNC’s undefeated season. As they had so many times before, the Tar Heels refused to accept their fate. Elstun helped by missing the free throw, and UNC made a bucket and three free throws by Kearns to eventually tie it up at 46. Kansas missed the game-winning attempt and the game was headed, once again, for overtime.
Carolina looked dead on its feet: The three-overtime marathon against Michigan State had clearly taken a toll. On top of that, their thin rotation was even thinner with Rosenbluth out. The Heels only made one shot in the OT and missed four free throws; three by Kearns and one by Quigg. The good news? Kansas also made only one shot and no free throws. The second overtime was even more brutal: Five minutes, no baskets. A testament to both teams’ exhaustion but also their defense: Imagine being utterly exhausted and still keeping Wilt Chamberlain from even hitting a layup for five minutes.
In the third overtime, things picked up again. Kearns made a basket and both ends of a one-and-one to give UNC a 52-48 lead. Wilt managed to finish through UNC’s attempt to foul and hit the free throw. Shortly after, King and Elstun both made one of two free throws and Kansas led 53-52, UNC ball. Kearns’ go-ahead attempt was blocked out of bounds by Chamberlain and with 10 seconds left, Carolina had one last chance.
Quigg got the ball at the top of the key, pump faked to throw Chamberlain off balance, then drove for the hoop. His layup attempt was blocked by Wilt as well, but King had inexplicably come over to double and got him on the arm. Quigg, who had bricked a free throw earlier in the game and hadn’t spent a second on the bench, was going to the line to shoot a pair with 6 seconds left, but he had to wait for a timeout taken by...McGuire.
McGuire faced his team, “After Joe makes both of them...” then described the defense they would play. No “if”, no “hopefully.” As the team broke the huddle, Quigg turned to the others, “Don’t worry guys, I’ll make them.”
There you go. The two best parts of “Hoosiers” right there. Quigg swished both. 54-53 Heels. Timeout Kansas.
Everyone knew where it was going. Quigg fronted Chamberlain, while Brennan hemmed him in from behind. Kansas passed it in from midcourt to to Ron Loneski at the foul line. Meanwhile, Elstun broke for the right corner, wide open. Brennan, seeing this, went after him, leaving no one between Chamberlain and the hoop.
Quigg knew it immediately, “Come back! Come back!” he screamed after Brennan, but it was too late: Chamberlain was now between him and an undefended hoop. Wilt was quoted years later as saying “Carolina hadn’t done a damn thing wrong all game...until the last five seconds.”
But Loneski hurried his entry pass, coming down with it and bouncing right back up in the air to lob it in. He got it high and inside, but not quite high enough. Quigg, knowing he was the last line of defense, leaped up and got a hand to it and batted it out to Kearns (Where’s Johnny Most when you need him: “Quigg stole the ball!”). Kearns began to dribble out the clock. Kansas players were all around him ready to foul, so he did something that players just didn’t do back then: He heaved the ball into the air. Kearns later said, “All night long we’d been keeping it away from Chamberlain. I figured I’d throw it to where even he couldn’t reach.”
Every eye in the building followed the ball through the air and before it came down again the horn had sounded.
”We win! 54 to 53!” hollered Jim Reid on WPTF radio. “North Carolina did it! North Carolina wins the championship!”
And with that, UNC had its first NCAA title. McGuire and his New York boys were undefeated, and the Tar Heels had completed the most dramatic Final Four run in college basketball history.
Rosenbluth finished with 20 points on 8-15, a vast improvement from the night before. Pete Brennan had 11 points and 11 rebounds, while Quigg had 10 and 9. Chamberlain finished with 23 and 14, 11 of his points coming from the foul line. Quigg, Cunningham, and Kearns all played every minute of both the final and the semifinal, a preposterous total of 110 minutes in two days.
When the victorious Heels landed at Raleigh-Durham airport, they were greeted by 10,000 people, many of whom spilled out onto the runway and forced the plane to circle the airport before landing. Everyone had seen the game, and everyone wanted to greet the heroes. Big time college basketball stuck in the mind of North Carolina that weekend in Kansas City. It never left.
Speaking of sticking in the mind: Four years later, McGuire departed Chapel Hill to become the head coach of the Philadelphia Warriors. Their star player was Wilt Chamberlain. When McGuire arrived for his first day on the job, Chamberlain greeted him as follows, “Why the hell did you have Kearns jump against me?”