Thursday, December 07, 2006

An Elite Season

Back in the fall of 1968, the United States was going through some of the most tumultuous and significant events of this century. In the spring and summer, dual assassinations had taken the lives of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. It would be less than a year before the first man landed on the moon. Throughout the country, the cultural tumult over draft-dodging, racial toleration, and gender equality continued to preoccupy a generation. Even small Davidson, NC counted itself as being part of the national picture of the 1960’s. However, down here, the name of the game wasn’t necessarily civil rights or foreign policy. It was college basketball.

In the history of Davidson basketball, the 1960’s played out like an Oscar-winning movie script. Lefty Driesell arrived on campus at the beginning of the decade, and when he left nine years later, the school’s basketball program was transformed forever. Davidson reached the NCAA tournament three times in those years, they finished the season in the Top 25 six times, and three players in that decade were named All-Americans.

Davidson finished the 1967-1968 season with a heart-breaking four-point loss to North Carolina in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament. Armed with a returning frontcourt of Mike Maloy, Jerry Kroll and Doug Cook, Driesell knew that 1969 could be the year to challenge UCLA for the national championship. Driesell and his staff never expected less than perfection, and his drive influenced the players and the community.

Even the thought of speculating about a national championship in Davidson seems mind-boggling in the current context. In 2005-2006, Davidson sported one of its best teams of the Bob McKillop era which included four players who finished in the all-time leaderboards in points, three-pointers and assists. Yet, after winning the Southern Conference championship game by a recordt ying 25 points over Chattanooga, Davidson was only given a million to one chance to win the NCAA tournament.

In 1969, Davidson was not a surprise team. In the Charlotte Observer’s season preview, Davidson and North Carolina were heralded as the East Coast challengers to UCLA. Davidson’s Mike Maloy was on the cover of the December issue of Sports Illustrated along with Mike Casey and Charlie Scott. Throughout the season, Davidson played 10 of its home games in Charlotte Coliseum because the smaller Johnston Gym would not hold the large crowds.

“When we stepped on the court, winning was the expected outcome 100 percent of the time,” said forward Jerry Kroll ’70. ’“Each of us expected the highest level of intensity and performance from each other and we counted on and trusted each other to
deliver, regardless of the opponent.”

During that season, Davidson handily defeated schools like Maryland, South Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Duke and Wake Forest. Their average scoring margin of 16.5 points per game ranked sixth in the nation by the end of the season. Davidson won road games in such locales as Madison Square Garden, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Morgantown, West Virginia. By season’s end, Mike Maloy was named the Southern Conference Player of the Year. Maloy averaged 24.6 points per game, while Kroll had 16.0 ppg and Cook had 14.6 ppg. At point guard, Dave Moser averaged 8.3 ppg and led the team with 155 assists.

Despite its size, the small college town did its best to support one of the nation’s top basketball programs. Games were always sold out and fan support equaled the intensity of Coach Driesell and his players.

“There were students who, having hitch-hiked in some cases, showed up in New York and Chicago to see us play,” said Kroll. “The atmosphere was powerful…it was electric.”

Armed with the confidence of an undefeated conference season, a hometown audience, and the charge that only one conference team made it to the NCAA tournament, the Wildcats rolled through the Southern Conference tournament being held in Charlotte, NC. In the championship game, the ’Cats defeated East Carolina by a margin of 26 points. For the third time in four years, Davidson earned a bid to the NCAA tournament to take on Villanova.

Not only did that game mark the final time that Lefty Driesell coached a Davidson team in Charlotte, it was also the final college game as an East Carolina Pirate for an ECU guard named Bob McKillop. As McKillop watched the talented Wildcats celebrate in mid-court, he knew that there was something special about that program: “They owned the town,” remembered McKillop.

A 14-point win over the Villanova Wildcats in the NCAA Tournament’s first round allowed Davidson to advance to the East Regionals in College Park, MD where they faced St. Johns. The Johnnies had pulled out a 75-74 overtime win over Davidson earlier in the season, and the Wildcats wanted revenge.

The Wildcats led the game at halftime and pulled away in the second half due to the suffocating defense of Mike O’Neill who held the prolific St. Johns’ scorer, John Warren, to only four second half points. Maloy added a career-high 35 points to give the Wildcats a 10-point win and a place in the Eastern Regional championship game against North Carolina.

“The Davidson dressing room was quiet and confident,” wrote the Charlotte Observer’s Mel Derrick on March 14, 1969. “The mood was one belonging to a team that honestly thinks it can win a national championship.”

On March 15, Davidson took on the University of North Carolina in what was arguably the most important game in the history of Davidson basketball. The Tar Heels had beaten Davidson in the same Regional Championship game the year before by four points. The game featured two of the nation’s best players in Mike Maloy and Charlie Scott. It also featured two young coaches in Lefty Driesell and Dean Smith who would go on to epitomize the standard of basketball excellence in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

At the time, it was a battle for revenge, it was a battle for the Final Four, and it was a battle for bragging rights in the state of North Carolina. The writers of a blockbuster movie could not have written a more compelling script.

The game featured numerous lead changes and many foul calls as the teams fought back and forth. With under a minute remaining, the score was tied and, as it was before the invention of the shot clock, Davidson was determined to hold for the final shot. But a North Carolina defender found himself in the right place at the right time after Kroll reversed his dribble in the middle of the court. The ensuing charging call gave the Tar Heels the ball and Coach Smith called a timeout.

Coming out of the timeout with under a minute to play, everyone in the fieldhouse knew that UNC wanted Scott to take the final shot. After receiving the inbound, Scott was able to go to his right and find himself open at the top of the key. Scott sunk the shot, and all the hopes of Davidson fans everywhere.

Davidson finished the season with a record of 27-3 and the Associated Press ranked them third in the country in their final poll.

Since 1969, Davidson has not won a game in the NCAA tournament, despite winning another five conference tournament championships. The storybook years of the Driesell era when Davidson and North Carolina battled for state bragging rights are long gone.

To a new generation of basketball fans, those teams seem rather exceptional and compelling, but rarely realistic. Instead, the past success of Davidson basketball has begun to take on a mythic feeling that hides the true beauty of how important those successes were. Although Davidson remains a school of 1,600 students, many still believe that national prominence is not just a dream.

“Success starts at the top, from the administration down to the coaching to the players and fans,” said former point guard Dave Moser ’69. “I really believe that we can compete with some of the best teams in the country.”

In the same way that Lefty Driesell transformed a program of mediocrity into one with national title aspirations, Bob McKillop continues to push the Davidson basketball program to new heights. In the last five years, McKillop has put together three postseason teams that have helped raise Davidson’s national recognition level.

Davidson continues to believe in success on a national level, and will never forget the heights they have reached in the past.

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