Awhile back, it dawned on us here at RazorbackExpats.com that the Arkansas basketball program has a very special anniversary coming up this spring. Thirty years ago this March, Eddie Sutton led the Hogs to the Final Four, marking the school's first modern-era appearance in college basketball's showcase event. Whit E. Knight, one of our favorite commenters and an occasional contributor, has commemorated this seminal event with a three-part series. In this final installment (click here for the first and here for the second), he recounts the Hogs' five games in the 1978 NCAA Tournament. Many, many thanks, Whit. Once again, the stage is now yours:
Arkansas’s first-round game in the NCAA tournament was in Eugene, Ore., against unranked Weber State, which had finished the season with an impressive winning streak and its conference tournament title. Weber State kept it close early, but Brewer finally began penetrating the Wildcats’ zone, and with U.S. Reed and little-used Alan Zhan getting extended playing time while Moncrief and Schall were on the bench in foul trouble, the Hogs pulled away to a 73-52 victory. Delph finished with 20 points, Brewer 19 and Moncrief 16. The Arkansas Gazette noted that the game was remarkable for one thing: an almost total lack of intensity. That would soon change.
Next up was 10-time NCAA champion and No. 2-ranked UCLA in Albuquerque, N.M. It is hard to realize today just how daunting the game must have seemed to the Hogs and their fans. As Counce said, “From the time I was 7 until I was 17, UCLA was the national champion every year but one.”
The deck headline in the Gazette sports section the day after the game said it all: “Hogs Display Courage, Poise in Record Win.” Arkansas led by 10 at the half, but was down by two with 7:34 to go. The Razorbacks shook off the memory of their collapse against Wake Forest the previous year, steadied themselves, regained the lead and answered every UCLA threat the rest of the way to prevail, 74-70.
Delph, who had been snubbed out of high school by UCLA, which had no interest in a 6-4 center from Conway, was 10 of 11 from the field in the first half and finished with 23 points. He and Brewer, who scored 18, played the entire 40 minutes. Moncrief, who tallied 21, played all but the last few seconds. He had to leave the game after he suffered a mild concussion, jammed finger on his left hand and considerable bruises on his shoulder and neck when a hard foul from 6-9 All-American David Greenwood sent him crashing to the floor. Counce played 39 minutes. With Schall again on the bench with four fouls, Zahn contributed a solid 21 minutes.
It was the most physical game the Hogs had played all year, but even though they were a finesse team, they were clearly the better squad and deserved to advance. This game announced to the world that Arkansas now belonged among the elite in college basketball.
Amazingly, Moncrief practiced the next day. From this point on, all the Hogs games would be broadcast nationally on NBC. The network could not have asked for a more exciting game than the regional final, which pitted Arkansas against the tournament Cinderella, Cal State Fullerton (CSF), a team that had advanced after being behind by 10 against No. 12 New Mexico and by 15 against No. 11 San Francisco.
Brewer shredded the Titans’ zone as Arkansas raced out to a 15-point halftime lead. With Moncrief admittedly playing “a step slow,” CSF, the quickest team the Hogs had played all year, began a full-court press, forcing 13 Hog turnovers in the second half and steadily whittling the lead down until Keith Anderson sank a jumper to put the Titans ahead for the first time in the game, 58-57, with 1:43 left. Twenty seconds later, with CSF back in the zone, Brewer hit an uncontested 25-footer. Anderson then missed a jumper and the put-back, and the Hogs ran down the clock before the Titans fouled three times to put Counce on the line. He missed the front end of the one and one, and with no timeouts left, Anderson pushed upcourt and penetrated, looking for a shot or foul. When he went up for the shot, Moncrief, Counce and Brewer all converged on him and stripped the ball cleanly. Moncrief came up with it and passed it down court to Counce, who hit a layup to make the final score 61-58. Brewer was named the MVP of the regional, and Delph and Moncrief made the all-regional team.
The Hogs were headed to St. Louis for the national semi-finals, which for the first time that year was called the Final Four. In another first, the next day’s writeup in the Arkansas Gazette started on page one of the news section, not the sports section, and got the full Orville Henry magnum opus treatment previously reserved for Razorback football .
The victory over CSF was the game where the irrepressible NBC broadcaster Al McGuire, overly excited by the play of Brewer, Delph and Moncrief, labeled them the “Triplets,” an unfortunate nickname that has persisted to this day. Most people probably think that they were called that throughout their career at Arkansas, but it was only for their last three games together. As Moncrief noted in his autobiography, the three never really thought of themselves as a special group, but if they were to be given a nickname, a much better one would be the one Orville Henry had tried to pin on them: The Basketeers (think of Moncrief as d'Artagnan). Any one of them would have been the star on another team, but under Sutton, they played with the philosophy of “one for all and all for one.“
An amusing side note to the victory over CSF was Counce’s layup at the end. He had never dunked in a game and supposedly had a bet with another player and one of the managers that he would dunk sometime during the season. This was the perfect opportunity: There was no one near him, and he was on national TV, but he laid it in, afraid that if he missed the dunk and hung on the rim, the free throws from the ensuing technical would cost the Hogs the game and Sutton would kill him.
Right before the Final Four, freshman Michael Watley, upset that he was not starting and had not seen any action during the tournament except late in the first game against Weber State, decided to quit the team, depleting the already shallow pool of substitutes available.
In the Final Four, the Hogs drew Kentucky, the No. 1-ranked team in the country for most of the season. The Wildcats had two second-team All-Americans, Rick Robey and Jack Givens, and sharpshooter Kyle Macy was all-SEC. Kentucky was the consensus choice to win the championship, but most experts agreed the Hogs, with their quickness and athleticism, were the team most likely to knock them off.
The game could not have started out better for the Razorbacks, with first Brewer and then Moncrief converting steals into breakaway dunks on Kentucky’s first two possessions as Arkansas jumped out to the early lead,. But the complexion of the game changed completely when Schall picked up his fourth foul after only 6:40 of the first half. Thirty years later, Gene Keady was still bitter. “Those damn referees,“ he told the Downtown Tip-Off Club. “All our screens were fouls.“
Sutton had to abandon his beloved man-to-man defense to play a zone and the Wildcats quickly took the lead. Meantime, the Kentucky coaching staff had figured out something no one else had all year: the importance of the low-scoring Counce to the Hogs’ offense. Everyone was so scared of what the other four could do that they would play off Counce when he had the ball on the high post, which freed him to make the pass to the next man in the offense. Despite playing forward, he led the team in assists.
Kentucky put the mammoth Robey on Counce, guarding him tightly and completely disrupting the Arkansas offense. The Hogs defense continued to give the Wildcats fits, but at one point in the first half, the Razorbacks turned it over without a shot on 8 of 9 possessions.
Kentucky maintained a small lead that they were able to stretch out to 28-21 with 5:58 left in the half. Arkansas came back to tie it at 30-30 on a 15-footer by Moncrief. Kentucky scored the only other basket in the half to take a 32-30 half-time lead. Both teams were in foul trouble, but Arkansas, with less depth, was in the more dire position; Counce had picked up his fourth foul with 3:52 left in the half.
Kentucky controlled the second half, but never could put the Hogs away. At the midway point of the period, the Wildcats led 50-42. The Wildcats took their largest lead of the game when Moncrief was called for goal-tending, making it 54-45 with 8:40 remaining.
But Arkansas started chipping away at the lead, and Zahn’s tip-in of a missed free throw by Moncrief made the score 59-58. Unfortunately, the Hogs had peaked. On a Kentucky inbounds play, Givens broke for the basket, Macy hit him with a perfect baseball pass, and Givens took it in for an easy layup to give Kentucky a 63-59 lead with 1:55 remaining. That was the backbreaker, and Kentucky won by a final score of 64-59. The disappointed Razorbacks felt they had been just one play away from winning the game.
Givens, who would go on to be named the Final Four MVP, led all scorers with 23 points. Brewer scored 16, Delph 15 and Moncrief 13, below par for them, and Schall, who only played 21 minutes, had six points. Kentucky out-rebounded the Hogs 32-26, but the most telling statistic was that Arkansas had only four assists.
In those days, the Final Four still featured a consolation game. Neither Arkansas nor Notre Dame really wanted to play the game, but it was a good thing they did because it ended with one of the greatest plays in Razorback history.
If the Hogs had thought Kentucky was physical, Notre Dame showed them what physical reallywas. Counce was taken to the hospital after suffering a blow to the abdomen in a collision with future Detroit Pistons Bad Boy Bill Lambeer with 9:35 left in the first half. Arkansas trailed by 10 midway through the half, but with Zahn in for Counce and fired up by a technical against Sutton, the Razorbacks went on an 18-4 run to take a 40-36 halftime lead. During intermission, the Hogs dedicated the game to Counce. Arkansas led for most of the second half, but Notre Dame came back behind three unanswered baskets by substitute Tracy Jackson to tie the game with 10 seconds left, 69-69.
For the final play of the game, Sutton called for a “Brewer Special.” Everyone else would spread out, and as he had so many times before, Brewer would take the last shot with the game on the line. Delph took the inbounds pass, fed the ball to Brewer, and the Notre Dame defenders fled to defend the basket area, with 6-7 Bill Hanzlik on Brewer.
Brewer slowly worked the ball with his back to Hanzlik. With one second left on the clock, he turned around, leaped straight up and put up a high arching shot that was nothing but net, ripping the cords as the buzzer sounded. “It felt good when it left my hand,” Brewer said. “I knew it was going in.”
The next day, the front page of the Gazette had a perfectly framed picture, with Brewer at the top of his jump getting ready to release the ball, Hanzlik lunging too late to stop it, a ball boy on the side line rising in exultation and the clock showing 0:01. Before Scotty Thurman’s national championship game-winner against Duke, before Charles Ballentine’s leaner that toppled No. 1 North Carolina and Michael Jordan in Pine Bluff, before U.S. Reed’s half-court fling against Louisville, this was The Shot.
Despite only playing 29 minutes because of foul trouble, Delph led the Hogs in scoring with 21 points, with Brewer, who was named to the all-Final Four team, right behind with 20. Schall played the entire 40 minutes and had 11 rebounds. Arkansas finished the season 32-4, tying the then-NCAA record for most victories in a season.
Brewer made several All-America teams, including first-team Converse, first-team USBWA and second-team AP. Moncrief was third-team AP, and Delph was second-team Converse and honorable mention AP. All three were All-SWC for the second year in a row. Meanwhile, Sutton was named National Coach of the Year by both the AP and the UPI.
And a standard had been set that would culminate in the national championship 16 years later.
Note: In the course of writing this series, the author used information from the Arkansas Gazette archives located at the Arkansas History Commission, the University of Arkansas media guide and www.google.com.(more at www.razorbackexpats.com)