TIM PEELER: 12-10 ? A Score That Lives in ACC Infamy
BY TIM PEELER
Forty years ago this week, Norm Sloan and Vic Bubas, two Indiana natives who vied for the same startingg position under legendary NC State coach Everett Case, faced off in the 1968 ACC Tournament semifinals in Charlotte, Sloan as the head coach of his alma mater and Bubas as the head coach at Duke.
Bubas, in a world of college basketball that is completely foreign to successive generations weaned on the nearly all-inclusive “March Madness,” had the upper hand, leading his sixth-ranked Blue Devils into the tournament with the practical assumption that they would face second-ranked
But Sloan, in his second year as the head coach of the Wolfpack, had other ideas. Sloan was a young coach looking to make a name for his program, which had suffered through two rebuilding seasons. And there was no one he would have rather done it against than Bubas, who arrived from the
Sloan, famously hot-headed, confronted Case about playing time midway through his junior season, when Bubas had been inserted into the lineup. “But Norm,” said Case, whose team was en route to the Southern Conference regular-season and tournament championships, “we’re winning.”
“Yeah, but if I was playing,” Sloan shot back, “we’d be winning by more.”
Bubas later became Case’s top assistant, and the two built NC State into a national power and made the ACC passionate about basketball. Sloan spent his senior season playing football, and eventually had head coaching positions at
Sloan was hired in 1966 to replace Press Maravich, Case’s hand-picked successor who left NC State after only two seasons when his son, legendary player “Pistol” Pete Maravich, couldn’t get the ACC’s required scored of 800 on the SAT. In Sloan’s first season, the Wolfpack played without injured star Eddie Biedenbach, who had led the team in scoring in 1966, and slipped to a miserable 7-19 overall record and a last-place finish in the ACC.
The next season thanks to Biedenbach’s return, senior forward Bill Kretzer and the arrival of sophomore forward Vann Williford the Wolfpack was good enough to finish third in the ACC, with a 14-9 overall and 9-5 league record. The Blue Devils, led by senior center and unanimous All-ACC selection Mike Lewis, finished second to
At the tournament, played for the first time in
What happened in the semifinals, however, was more slowdown than showdown the lowest scoring game in ACC basketball history.
To this day, NC State’s players insist that it was never Sloan’s intent to completely deflate the basketball. They just wanted to beat Duke for the first time that season. Sloan knew just how to do it to get the 6-foot-8 Lewis out from under the basket by playing his two forwards, Kretzer and Williford, out near mid-court. Sloan’s continuity scheme today it would be referred to as a “motion offense” was straight out of Case’s playbook, rotating his players through all five positions during a possession.
He figured that if he started the game with Williford and Kretzer his only two players taller than 6-4 near the top of the key that Lewis would have to come out and guard them. Ironically enough, because of a lack of size, the Wolfpack was known as a run-and-gun team in 1968, averaging more than 74 points a game.
But Bubas and the Blue Devils wouldn’t cooperate. The coach, who has claimed for the last four decades that his Top 10 team couldn’t keep up with the quicker Wolfpack, kept his players packed in a tight zone defense.
“The truth of the matter is,” Bubas said after the game, “we couldn’t press a team of grandmothers. Regardless of what anybody says, I knew we couldn’t press.”
So, after winning the opening tap, the Wolfpack held the ball. Initially, NC State fans cheered while the rest of the Coliseum booed. Eventually, however, as Kretzer stood near mid-court dribbling the ball, passing it to a teammate only when his arm got tired, the whole place fell into a confused, and rather bored, silence. One of the officials sat on the scorers table. Several players stood in the lane talking to each other about anything but the game. Biedenbach and Williford walked over to the NC State bench to discuss strategy with Sloan.
Midway through the first half, they were joined by Sloan’s 8-year-old Mike, who was sent to the sidelines with a question from Sloan’s wife, Joan.
“Mama wants to know what's going on,” he said.
The answer was simple: He was trying to out-wait Bubas. At halftime, the Blue Devils led 4-2. Things moved quickly in the opening minutes of the second half, until Duke took an 8-6 lead. That's when Sloan instructed Kretzer to hold the ball again. At one point, Kretzer dribbled the ball continuously for 13 minutes and 45 seconds as time slowly clicked off the clock. Both radio and television broadcasts went to commercial breaks while the clock was running, and neither missed any action. UNC announcer Bill Currie, calling the game for the Tar Heel Network, told his listeners: “This game is about as exciting as watching artificial insemination.”
The late Kretzer was an unlikely hero. At 6-foot-6 inches tall, he was an undersized post player in the ACC. His eyesight was so bad, Sloan claimed, that he couldn't see the scoreboard. He had small hands that kept him from catching the ball easily. Because of those two things, Sloan instituted a team rule that no one could pass him the ball if either he was moving or Kretzer was moving.
“It was certainly one of the most bizarre games that anyone has participated in,” said the late Kretzer, who died in 1999 shortly after retiring as chief executive officer of Greensboro-based textile giant Unifi Inc. “We had played Duke twice and, quite candidly, they had better talent than we had as a whole. In each one of the regular-season games, we were fairly competitive for a while until we got into a stretch where we would get into a running game with them. They would make a spurt, and we could never recover.”
There were no spurts at all in this game, as the sore-armed Kretzer chewed time off the clock.
"I think I dribbled more that night than the entire time I played college basketball," Kretzer said in a 1973 interview. "I went back and forth across the court. I had to do something. I was afraid if I just stood there dribbling the ball I would lapse into a coma or something and bounce the ball off my foot."
As the clock ticked down to crunch time, Biedenbach and Williford walked over to the sidelines, where they got final instructions from Sloan. Duke guard Tony Barone, as he had the entire game, listened in on the strategy.
“Eddie, with about two and a half minutes to play ...” he began.
“Coach,” Biedenbach interrupted, pointing at 5-foot-6 Barone, “don’t you want to call time so he won’t hear our strategy?”
“Hell, no, you dumb son-of-a-...” Sloan said. “If we call timeout, they’ll take the midget out and put in someone to guard you.”
With 2:29 remaining on the clock, Biedenbach hit an 18-foot jumper to tie the game at 8. Duke took a brief lead with a single free throw, but NC State junior Dick Braucher grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on a put-back basket with about 40 seconds to play to give his team a 10-9 advantage.
With 16 seconds remaining, Williford gave the Pack a two-point advantage. Duke had the chance to tie the game at the free throw line, but missed the second of two shots. With three seconds left on the clock, Braucher hit the final free throw to sealed the upset victory, ending Duke's national title hopes.
"It was quite a unique game," Kretzer said. "You never like to win like that, but Duke never attempted to come out and get the ball. We didn't dictate the pace of the game, they did. We were in the championshipship game and they were the ones that were embarrassed, not us."
Sloan was roundly criticized for his strategy. But it allowed him to reach the championship game in only his second year as the Wolfpack’s head coach.
"[Bubas] let his ego take over and thought he'd make a fool of myself," Sloan wrote in his autobiography. "All he had to do was come out after us, and they would have blown us out of the building."
Bubas refused to speculate about what would have happened if he had done just that. Asked after the game, if he would come out and guard Kretzer if he had it to do over again: "I don't have it to do over again, so I won't answer the question."
Years later, he relented, telling The Charlotte Observer's Joe Posnaski in 1990: "Sure, I would press if we were playing now. We lost the other way."
Unfortunately, things didn’t work out well for the Wolfpack in the Saturday night championship game. Smith’s second-ranked Tar Heels rolled to an 87-50 victory, which at that point was the most lop-sided margin in an ACC Championship game.
“Believe it or not, after that game, we were exhausted,” Williford said. “It took everything out of us mentally to play that game against Duke.”
The Tar Heels advanced to the Final Four for the second consecutive year, where they lost in the championship game to UCLA, 78-55.
Sloan was vindicated just two years later, as he took a team that featured Williford, a first-team All-ACC selection, to another championship game in
This time, Gamecock coach Frank McQuire sent his team out to play man-to-man defense, and Williford quickly turned the game around with two open layups. The game was tied at 35 at the end of regulation, and the Wolfpack won in double-overtime when Ed Leftwich stole the ball away from Gamecock point guard Bobby Cremins with 22 seconds to play and raced down the court for a go-ahead layup.
The Pack won 42-39 for the first of Sloan’s three ACC Championships.
“Both those games happened because Sloan was a brilliant coach, and he faced to coaches who were more stubborn than he was,” said Williford, who owns a heavy equipment supply company in
You may contact Tim Peeler at email@example.com.
Sources: Information for this story was collected from personal intervies; Confessions of a Coach, by Norm Sloan and Larry Guest; ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History, by Ron Morris; Pack Pride: The History of NC State Basketball, by Douglas Herakovich; and Legends of NC State Basketball, by Tim Peeler.