Thursday, Dec. 27, 2012 | 2 a.m.
- UNLV, not North Carolina, will be ranked team for Saturday showdown
- Birch surprises himself with stellar offensive performance in UNLV’s victory
- Rebels must focus on the task at hand before their holiday break
- UNLV senior on watch list for award given to nation’s top point guard
- All UNLV men's basketball coverage
It’s been 35 years since the UNLV basketball team lost by one point to North Carolina in the 1977 Final Four, but the consensus with the Rebels’ players hasn’t changed since the clock expired that night in Atlanta: They were the better team and would have won the game if not for a fluke injury to one of their best players.
Instead, UNLV blew a 10-point second half lead in the national semifinals after being taken out of its fast-paced style of play when North Carolina went to its four-corner offense. That’s a pre-shot clock stalling strategy when four players stand in each corner on the offensive side of the court and the fifth dribbles the ball around, frequently switching ball possession with teammates in the corner.
“We should have been the national champions. It’s really that simple,” said Sam Smith, the starting small forward on the UNLV 1977 team.
When the Rebels travel to Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday to face North Carolina in their most anticipated regular season game, it will be the renewal of a series with great importance in Southern Nevada — especially recently.
Last year, of course, UNLV upset then-No. 1 ranked North Carolina for its signature win in the Dave Rice coaching era — a win several say was the most significant since the end of the glory years in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, for Jerry Tarkanian’s Rebels of the 1970s, it was also UNLV’s first victory against the Tar Heels. Tark's team lost, 84-83.
“It was kind of the payback I was looking for from 1977,” Robert Smith, a guard on the 1977 squad and currently the color commentator for UNLV’s radio broadcasts, said of last year’s win.
The 1977 team was nicknamed the “Hardway Eight” by Sports Information Director Dominic Clark because of their relentless style of play on both sides of the court. Clark also had individual monikers for the eight: “Sudden” Sam Smith and “Easy” Eddie Owens, for instance.
They finished with a 29-3 record, and players from the team still rank high in several all-time marks in the program’s history books. They had 23 games in which they scored 100 points, including 12 straight games. They also set a scoring record with 3,426 points — mind you, before the adoption of the shot clock.
“Our biggest thing is we picked people up full court,” said Robert Smith, whose 445 career assists rank seventh in program history. “We just wore everyone down. We went eight players deep. Each time someone got tired, a fresh body came in and continued the pressure. By the final eight to 10 minutes of the game, we could see (other teams) wearing out.”
The strategy partially worked against North Carolina.
UNLV, making its first Final Four appearance and a relative unknown on college basketball’s big stage, raced up and down the court, leading North Carolina 49-43 at halftime. The lead grew to 10 points early in the second half before the Tar Heels started chipping away.
The game turned when UNLV center Larry Moffett took an elbow to the face from teammate Glen Gondrezick with the Rebels leading by five points and with 17:15 remaining. Without Moffett, who was the Rebels’ force on the inside, North Carolina scored nine unanswered points for a 59-55 advantage. Reggie Theus, UNLV's 6-foot-7 guard, was forced to play in the post.
With the lead, North Carolina was able to accomplish what other teams had failed to all season: slow down the Runnin’ Rebels. The 83 points were UNLV’s second-lowest output of the season, and North Carolina couldn’t miss in the second half, shooting 70 percent.
“We had been running all year, and everyone we played couldn’t keep up with us,” said Sam Smith, who Rebel fans still affectionately call "Sudden" Sam. “We had them down, too. But that four corners pretty much took us out of what we wanted to do. They had a better game plan. They couldn’t run with us, and they found the way to slow it down.”
UNLV’s Tony Smith — there were three players with the last name Smith on the team, none of whom were related — drained a long-range shot at the buzzer to trim the final deficit to one point. The 1977 season was before the 3-point arc was instituted, and Tony Smith’s shot, just like several UNLV buckets that night, were from long-range.
“You can’t look at it as one possession or one missed shot,” Sam Smith said. “There were a lot of things we wish we could have done differently in that game.”
Even though the Rebels fell one game short of the national championship, they were considered champions in Las Vegas. The 1977 team helped spark a passion between team and community that still exists. In a town with no professional sports teams, UNLV basketball is arguably the only sport that matters.
Back then, when the Rebels played at the Las Vegas Convention Center, tickets for the 6,500-seat facility were virtually impossible to come by.
“I always think back to that game: What if we would have won?” Robert Smith said. “How much would that have changed the city? At the time, we were a smaller school, but we had the entire city backing us. Those people would have gone crazy.”
And for some of the players, the loss to North Carolina isn’t the most painful memory of revisiting their time at UNLV. Sam Smith gets choked up when talking about his former teammates — Gondrezick, Moffett and Lewis Brown — who have each died. Brown reportedly fell on hard times and was homeless two years ago when he died.
“We were brothers on that team. We did everything together,” Sam Smith said. “A lot of good times, good memories. Win or lose, we know what we started at UNLV. We loved each other, man.”