Reprinted from the March, 2009, Wolfpacker with permission of Coman Publishing Co.
BY TIM PEELER
RALEIGH, N.C. Sure, the game was meaningless, by literal standards. Just by getting to the finals of the 1959 ACC Tournament, North Carolina earned the conference’s berth into the NCAA Basketball Tournament.
That’s because NC State, which tied the Tar Heels for the regular-season championship and advanced to the title game after two close victories at the tournament, was in the third year of a four-year probation for recruiting Louisiana high school star Jackie Moreland and was ineligible to compete in postseason play because of NCAA sanctions.
At the time, the penalty was the harshest ever doled out for recruiting violations, banning all the school’s varsity sports from competing in postseason play. It’s the same probation that prevented the 1957 football team from accepting a bid to the Orange Bowl.
The Wolfpack, under Everett Case, was itching to win another conference championship, after back-to-back years of losing in the first or second round. That was an unheard-of drought for Case, who won nine Southern and ACC tournament championships in his first 10 years at NC State.
North Carolina coach Frank McGuire had more interest in winning an NCAA title than an ACC championship. McGuire, who won only two tournament championships in his 15 years of coaching in the ACC, was never fond of the league’s decision to send the tournament champion to the NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t think McGuire liked the ACC Tournament,” said Lou Pucillo, a senior guard on that Wolfpack squad from 50 years ago. “He had a phobia about having a good season and then starting all over again in the tournament. I think he had a difficult time coaching in the ACC Tournament, because he didn’t believe in it. But this was the tournament that made the ACC so big.”
Case, of course, lived for tournament play. In the mind of the Indiana-born legend, that’s how all real champions are determined.
He loved all tournaments, whether it was a three-day holiday event like his own Dixie Classic or one of the postseason spectacles hosted by conferences, the NCAA or the National Invitation Tournament.
He took them all seriously, even if he knew his team could not advance any further.
In the spring of 1959, Case was eager to win yet another title, while McGuire seemingly didn’t care at all how his team finished the league tournament, since a 74-71 victory over Duke in the semifinals had assured the Tar Heels of the league’s automatic NCAA bid. After that game, McGuire hinted that he might not play his starters at all, sowing the seed that UNC might not go all out against the ineligible-to-advance Wolfpack.
Both coaches had excellent teams that season. Case had led the Wolfpack which featured a pair of All-Americans in Pucillo, a ball-handling phonon, and center John Richter to the No. 1 spot in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history earlier in the season, not long after it had dispatched Cincinnati and Michigan State in the 10th-annual Dixie Classic.
That lofty ranking was short-lived, however. McGuire’s Tar Heels, led by forwards Lee Shaffer and Doug Moe, knocked off the Wolfpack in an overtime game at Reynolds Coliseum. At the end of the contest, McGuire and his team celebrated by calling a timeout with two seconds to play to soak in the victory on the Wolfpack’s home court. The Tar Heels, elevated to No. 1 in the polls by the end of the season, beat the Wolfpack again at Woollen Gym in Chapel Hill.
The Wolfpack was so eager for a postseason rematch, it nearly lost in the quarterfinals to South Carolina (75-72) and in the semifinals to Virginia (66-63). But Case certainly had his team ready to play in the finals, even if McGuire gave most of his starters the night off.
Much to the ire of the partisan Reynolds Coliseum crowd, McGuire freely substituted for his starters in the first half, when the Wolfpack built a 35-27 advantage.
“Everett was not too happy that Frank McGuire wouldn’t let his good guys play,” said Vic Bubas, a long-time Case assistant who eventually became the head coach at Duke. “There was nothing illegal about what he did, so coach said let’s play our best against who they put on the court. But he wasn’t very happy about that.”
In the second half, the game became a blowout. Pucillo, playing in his final collegiate game, scored 23 points. Richter pumped in 15. Pucillo joined Richter and teammate George Stepanovich on the first-team All-ACC Tournament squad and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“This is the greatest thrill of my college career,” said Pucillo, who was later named ACC Player of the Year and the 1959 ACC Athlete of the Year. “And my last.”
With the Pack leading 65-52 and 4:29 on the clock, McGuire pulled his starters for the last time.
An irate Wolfpack fan found the master switch in the expansive basement of Reynolds Coliseum and turned out all the lights, causing an eight-minute delay.
Pucillo, slicker than an oil spill with the ball, begged Case to let him run out the final five minutes on the clock by dribbling on a darkened court. Case refused, perhaps because he wanted everyone in the building to see what happened in the final moments.
The Wolfpack poured on the points and eventually took an 80-56 victory, which still stands as the fourth-most lopsided ACC Tournament championship game of all time.
With four seconds to play, the Wolfpack called timeout to savor the win and to prepare to cut down the nets on what turned out to be Case’s fourth and final ACC Tournament title.
“That was some of the boys’ doing,” Case said after the game. “I had nothing to do with it. In fact, I wished they hadn’t done it. But you know how boys are.”
He might have even winked as he said it.
McGuire got into a shouting match with a reporter who suggested that his team hadn’t performed at its highest level.
“You always want to win the game you are playing,” McGuire said. “That’s basketball. We put the second string in there to rest our regulars. It’s an old trick ... You put the second team in there and tell them not to take shots. Just hold the ball and move it. All this time, your regulars are resting. Don’t forget, the game was lost when the regulars were in there. Not when the subs went in. The game was lost with about eight minutes to play.”
Fatigue was definitely not a factor when the Tar Heels went to New York three days later for the NCAA Tournament’s opening round. McGuire’s well-rested team fell to Navy 76-63.
Case, “The Old Grey Fox,” could only smile.
You may contact Tim Peeler at firstname.lastname@example.org.