- Saturday, March 19 1977 -
NCAA East Regional Finals (at College Park, MD)
Kentucky - 72 (Head Coach: Joe B. Hall) - [Final Rank 3rd by AP]
North Carolina - 79 (Head Coach: Dean Smith) - [Final Rank 5th by AP and 3rd by UPI]
Halftime Score: North Carolina 53, Kentucky 41
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|Virginia Military 93 - 78|||||Southern Methodist 110 - 86|
Game Writeup - by Tony Kornheiser, New York Times
No. Carolina Gains With N.C.-Charlotte
Kuester Key to 79-72 Defeat of Kentucky
COLLEGE PARK, Md., March 19 -- What should have been the knockout blow was delivered with 19 minutes and 8 seconds left to play in the game North Carolina won, 79-72. It left Phil Ford lying on the ground, holding his injured elbow to make sure it was still attached to his right arm. Ford had just charged into Kentucky's Larry Johnson and picked up his fourth foul. Normally, Dean Smith, the Carolina coach, would have pulled Ford and sat him down until he was desperately needed down the stretch. But when Ford sat down today, there was no chance of him coming back; he couldn't even raise his arm, let alone use it to shoot a basketball.
Over on the Kentucky bench, Rick Robey looked at the clock and looked at the scoreboard, which showed Carolina leading 55-43, and began smiling.
Yes, he thought, there was enough time left for the comeback, and no, Phil Ford wouldn't be in there to prevent it. And Robey said to himself: "Awwright now. This is a big advantage to us."
But not all fights end in knockouts. Smith looked over at John Kuester, a 6-foot-3-inch senior guard whom Smith thinks of as an assistant coach on the floor, and the two made eye contact. A message passed between them without any words being spoken. And the message was -- John, it's your team now. Run the show.
The Playing Wounded
And 19 minutes 8 seconds later, when the final buzzer went off, Kuester was still running it, and Carolina was still winning it. The final was a unanimous decision, not a knockout.
With its victory, its 14th in a row, Carolina won the Eastern Regional of the National Collegiate basketball tournament for the fifth time under Smith, the first time since 1972. And next Thursday, when the final four teams assemble in Atlanta for the championship round, the Tar Heels will be there. Despite the fact that Tom LaGarde's knee will be in a cast, despite the fact that Walter Davis will still be nursing a cracked finger on his shooting hand and despite the fact that Phil Ford -- the best guard in the nation -- had almost nothing to do with today's victory. Davis, despite his injury, led Carolina with 21 points, Kuester had 19.
Kuester, who was later named the most outstanding player in the regional did the best imitation of Phil Ford that Carolina has ever seen. When Carolina went to its four-corners offense -- the one designed to spread out the offense and clear the defense from the middle for the point guard to dribble around and either draw fouls or dish the ball off for the easy basket -- it was Kuester's game to win or lose. He was in charge of a 59-53 lead, and he was given 15:09 to play with. All he was, was perfect.
"He did a great job," Robey said. "Honestly, I didn't think he could do it."
If Kentucky was unconvinced, Carolina wasn't. Bruce Buckley, a senior who has played four years with Kuester, called him, "a take-charge guy, a second father out there." Mike O'Koren, a freshman who has seen Kuester only this year, has seen enough to say, "Hey, man, Kues can run that offense too."
Down the stretch, Kuester did everything he had to. He laid the ball off to O'Koren, Davis and Tom Zaliagiris for layups. He made eight foul shots -- both ends of four different one-and-ones -- and he had the right words for his teammates. When Steve Krafcisin, a freshman, went to the line with 36 seconds left for a one-and-one, and the Tar Heels leading by only 73-72, he said the right words.
"I told him he could do it," Kuester said. "I told him he had the best follow through on the team."
Krafcisin made both, and the Wildcats never got close again.
Ultimately, it was the Tar Heels' foul shooting that beat Kentucky, which ended its season with a 26-4 won-lost record. Carolina made 33 of 36 foul shots, all 16 in the second half. The Tar Heels scored their last 14 points on foul shots, 12 of them in one-and-one situations.
UNC's Walter Davis scores over Truman Claytor and Larry Johnson
Rick Robey tussles with UNC players for the ball
UNC's Mike O'Koren (#31) takes a step in front of UK's Jack Givens (#21)