BY JIM SUMNER
RALEIGH, N.C. Today’s game between NC State and Cincinnati marks only the seventh time the two programs have squared off. That’s not much of a history, as these things go. But almost 50 years ago Cincinnati visited Reynolds Coliseum in a high-profile game that produced one of the biggest non-conference wins in Everett Case’s tenure in Raleigh.
The date was December 30, 1958, and Cincinnati was in town for the Dixie Classic, Case’s premier holiday tournament played at Reynolds Coliseum. The eight-team, three-day tournament was held annually for 12 years between Christmas and New Year’s.
North Carolina’s Big Four NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest comprised half the field, with non-ACC teams making up the other half. The 1958 field was loaded, with Cincinnati ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, followed by North Carolina at No. 3, State at No. 4, and Michigan State at No. 9.
Cincinnati was led by Oscar Robertson, arguably the best college player to ever visit Reynolds. Remember, this is a guy who once averaged a triple-double for an entire season in the NBA. The 6-5 junior came to Raleigh averaging 38 points a game. State countered with Everett Case’s last truly great team, led by a pair of talented seniors, 6-8 John Richter and 5-9 Lou Pucillo, a tandem that finished 1-2 in the voting for 1959 ACC Player of the Year. State was on probation for recruiting violations, so the players that season knew they would have to make their mark in the regular season.
The two powers were scheduled to meet in the second round and only then if they both won (or lost) their openers. Cincinnati did its part, pounding Wake Forest 94-70, in a game marred by a scuffle between Robertson and Wake star Dave Budd. State had a tougher time against Louisville, overcoming a six-point deficit late in the game thanks to the efforts of Dan Englehardt. In overtime, the Wolfpack pulled away for a 67-61 victory.
Cincinnati went into the second-round match-up favored by six points. Fourth-ranked teams aren’t often six-point underdogs at home. Case had two priorities. First, his team had to control the tempo. After the game he said “it would have been suicide to run with them.” Second, they had to contain Robertson. State played a zone the entire game, with instructions to adjust the zone to maintain maximum contact with the Big O.
His veteran team executed the plan to perfection. The game was tied five times early, the last time at 11-11 but the visitors never led. Bob MacGillivray, another State senior, scored six points in a 8-0 run that gave State a 19-11 lead. Robertson didn’t get his first field goal until 9:38 left in the half. State went into the locker room with a 32-24 lead.
Cincinnati made some adjustments at halftime. Robertson only had four field-goal attempts in the first half; he made two. Cincinnati ran more plays designed to get him the ball. They also pressed full court in an attempt to force the tempo.
The adjustments worked. The Bearcats created some turnovers that helped cut the lead to four at 35-31. But a George Stepanovich put-back and a three-point play by MacGillivray extended the lead to nine. Robertson began heating up but Richter’s dominance inside kept State ahead. One final Cincinnati flurry made the score 61-56 with 2:16 left. Reserve guard Mark Reiner made two foul shots and a Richter follow-shot made it 65-56. The final was 69-60.
Robertson ended the game with a hard-earned 29 points and the praise of Case, who called him “one of the best I’ve ever seen.” But Richter was his equal, at least this day. After fouling out with a mere four points against Louisville, Richter bounced back with a 26-point, 15-rebound masterpiece. He made 11 of 19 field-goal attempts. State out-rebounded Cincinnati 46-37 and made 22 of 25 foul shots. MacGillivray with 16 points and Pucillo with 13 joined Richter in double figures.
Case was carried of the court on the shoulders of his players and made no attempt to hide his delight. “We were just inspired today,” Case said. “We had terrific effort out there, particularly off the backboards. It was one of our greatest efforts. We just out-hustled them.”
State’s celebration was necessarily short, since it had less than 24 hours to prepare for the championship game. Michigan State and its All-America, “Jumpin’” Johnny Green, had defeated Duke in the other semifinal. State maintained its momentum with a 70-61 win over the Spartans, giving Case his seventh and final Dixie Classic title. Cincinnati lost to UNC 90-88 in a consolation game. The Bearcats ended the season with only four losses, half of which came in the Dixie Classic, and a spot in the Final Four.
A few days later top-ranked Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt and State jumped to the top spot in the AP poll for the first time in school history. The Pack ended the season with a 22-4 record, a share of the ACC regular-season title and a championship in the ACC Tournament.
Everett Case coached at North Carolina State for 17 seasons and won far more than his share of big games. But second-ranked Cincinnati was the highest ranked team to ever fall to Case’s Wolfpack.
Raleigh resident Jim Sumner is the retired curator of the North Carolina History Museum and author of several books on southern sports history.
Front row (L to R): Dan Englehardt, Mark Reiner, Lou Pucillo, Bob McCann, Dick Culler.
Middle row: Head coach Everett Case, Stan Niewierowski, Bob MacGillivray, Bruce Hoadley, Don Gallagher, Jon Ed Simbeck, assistant coach Vic Bubas.
Back row: George Stepanovich, Bob DiStefano, Larry Ranta, John Richter, Harold Atkins.