Monday, March 17, 2014

Case's Madison Square Garden Curse

NC State Hall of Fame Coach Everett Case never had much luck at Madison Square Garden.
For a half century, Madison Square Garden, once the epicenter of college basketball excitement, was shut out of March Madness, because of its role in attracting the gamblers that nearly killed the sport in the early 1950s and '60s. This year, after an absence of 53 years, Madison Square Garden will host a portion of the NCAA Tournament.

In the entire history of the NCAA Tournament, there has never been a bigger upset or a longer game.

Fifty-eight years ago this week, NC State headed into the 1956 NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 ranked team in the country and the only real opposition for top-ranked San Francisco and All-American center Bill Russell. If all went as planned, the two college basketball superpowers would meet on March 24 at Northwestern’s 8,117-seat McGaw Memorial Hall in Evanston, Ill.

But Everett Case’s Wolfpack could not reverse its Madison Square Garden Curse.

For years, Case had put together some of the nation’s best teams, built around great players like three-time All-Americans Dick Dickey and Sammy Ranzino and center Bobby Speight. They helped “The Old Gray Fox” win six consecutive Southern Conference championships in Case’s first six seasons on campus.

And they helped the coach step into the spotlight at the Garden, at the nation’s most famous basketball venue. Case had taken teams there before, but in 1948, in NC State’s second postseason appearance, the Wolfpack lost to DePaul in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament. In 1950, the Pack beat Holy Cross and its superstar guard Bob Cousy at the Garden, but lost in Case’s only trip to the NCAA semifinals to eventual national champions City College of New York.

In 1951, Case and his team were eliminated in the first round of the National Invitation Tournament at the Garden, then came back to Raleigh the next weekend to lose in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to No. 5 Illinois, back when teams could participate in both events.

It got to the point that competitors across the new Atlantic Coast Conference began to make fun of the Wolfpack, which had lot of success when hosting big events like the Dixie Classic and the ACC Tournament at friendly Reynolds Coliseum – where Case always had right of first refusal for the officials that were retained for the most important games – but generally failed on the big stage.

“State is 100 percent and two men better when they play at home,” said outspoken Wake Forest star Dave Budd.

McGuire, who had been hired at North Carolina to knock Case off his ACC pedestal, even got in a biting dig at the Pack’s lack of success on the national stage.

“Each time I go to New York, I rave and I rave about State,” McGuire said. “Then when they go up there, they never live up to expectations.”

So in 1956, Case’s best team headed to the Garden with a monkey on its back and Ronnie Shavlik’s arm in a cast.

Even with an injured Shavlik, NC State won its third straight ACC title.
That’s because in State’s regular-season finale against Wake Forest, Shavlik suffered a broken bone in his left wrist, an injury that was supposed to end his senior season and, therefore, his career. But Shavlik was in uniform when the Wolfpack hosted the third-annual ACC Tournament at Reynolds Coliseum and, even hampered, helped his team win its third straight title and its ninth conference championship in 10 years. He was a contributor, with 33 rebounds in semifinals and finals. But teammate, and fellow All-American, Vic Molodet, was the star, scoring 79 points in his team’s three games. Shavlik’s performance garnered national attention, and before the Wolfpack played in the Garden, the soft-spoken star appeared on Perry Como’s New York-based talk show.

Even though it lost three games to ACC opponents that year, finally breaking a 23-game winning streak to ACC competition, the 1955-56 Wolfpack was the best team Case ever assembled, with seniors Shavlik and Molodet leading the way. Teammates John Maglio, Phil DiNardo, Nick Pond, Cliff Hafer, Bob Seitz and Lou Dickman gave Case a talented array of options.

But before they could face Russell, they had to contend with tiny Canisius College of Buffalo, N.Y., in the unbalanced tournament’s opening round. There were eight teams in the East, six teams in the Midwest, six in the West and five in the Far West, with San Francisco, UCLA, Utah, Kansas State, Kentucky, Houston and Iowa all getting first round byes.

Canisius had its own unique entry into the tournament, as champions of the Western New York Little Three Conference, so named because there were only three teams in the league: Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure. The Golden Griffins posted a 4-0 league record to earn its bid.

By double- and triple-teaming the injured Shavlik, Canisius took an early lead in the game, forcing the fatigued Wolfpack, which played almost as many games in its conference tournament over a three-day span as Canisius played in its conference season, to scramble to keep up. Canisius led 43-34 early in the second half, but the Wolfpack finally took its first lead at 65-63 with a minute to play on a jumper by Maglio, a junior guard. Canisius’s Dave Markey tied the score and the Wolfpack turned the ball over on its next possession. But Golden Griffins captain John McCarthy fell down as he drove for the game-winning basket and regulation ended in a 65-65 tie.

The sellout crowd became restless in overtime and actually booed both teams after they slowed the tempo, scoring four points each in the first overtime, two points each in the second overtime and no points in the third overtime.

Both coaches let loose the brakes in the fourth overtime. Three of Canisius’ best players had fouled out of the game, but the Wolfpack just could not shake the Griffins.

With 14 seconds to play and the Wolfpack leading by one point, Maglio was fouled, opening up the opportunity to pad his team's lead and break the MSG curse. The 73 percent free-throw shooter missed the front end of a one-and-one, Canisius grabbed the rebound and raced down the court with the final seconds ticking away. The ball ended up in the hands of Fran Corcoran, a little-used reserve who had averaged less than one point per game all year long and was only in the game because half of the Golden Griffins' regular six-man rotation had fouled out of the game. He wasn’t even listed in the tournament game program.

Of course he made the shot, a jumper from the top of the key, his only basket of the game, giving the tiny school with a 3,000 enrollment a 79-78 victory, and the biggest upset the tournament has ever seen, though it is little remembered these days because there is no “One Shining Moment” footage to go with it.
USA Today talked to Corcoran a few years ago and used him as an example of players who made historic shots in the NCAA Tournament.

This list of tournament upsets doesn’t even mention the game, though it does have the Wolfpack’s 1983 win over Houston as the greatest upset in the tournament’s history.

This list from ESPN ranks it as the No. 6 biggest upset and this list of the tournament's 50 greatest Cinderella stories has it ranked No. 15, with the State's Cardiac Pack No. 2.
Only one other time has an NCAA Tournament game gone to four overtimes, but it didn’t much count when it happened and the outcome doesn’t exist anymore. In 1961, St. Joseph’s beat Utah 127-120 in four OTs in Kansas City in the old NCAA consolation game, played between the two semifinal losers before the national title game. The win was later vacated because of Saint Joseph's involvement in a gambling scandal.

State finally did have some success in the Garden, returning in 1978 for the NIT, where it reached the title game before falling to Texas. And Jim Valvano led his first NC State team to the ECAC Festival title in December 1980 with wins over Iona and St. John's.

For Case, who was so often let down when he tramped on college basketball’s biggest stage, his opinion didn’t change from the moment the game ended at Madison Square Garden in New York until the day he died some 10 years later in Raleigh’s Cameron Village.

“This is my greatest disappointment in 36 years of coaching,” Case said.

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