Forty-four years ago tonight, North Carolina State beat South Carolina 44-39 in double overtime to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Basketball Tournament in Charlotte, North Carolina. That wasn’t supposed to happen. And it left the captain of the team, Bobby Cremins, so heartbroken, he and another player on the team fled into the mountains of North Carolina for several days before they could return to the South Carolina campus in Columbia.
Here’s why. In those days the winner of the ACC post-season tournament got the conference berth in the NCAA College Basketball Tournament. There were only half a dozen teams in the NCAA field, so there was no room for a South Carolina team that had romped to an undefeated 14-0 record against other ACC teams during the regular season. The Gamecocks were one of the top teams in the country in 1970, but their star player, John Roche, went down with a bad ankle sprain in the semifinals of the conference tournament against Wake Forest. Roche basically played on one leg in the final game loss to North Carolina State and South Carolina’s season was over.
“It was really heartbreaking for me,” Cremins says more than 40 years later. “I didn’t respond very well. I was an emotional mess. I wish now I would have dealt with that a little bit better. But I was just too heartbroken to go back to school. I finally drifted back. I don’t even know how I got back. I think we hitchhiked back.”
That was the end of Cremins’ college playing career. But he went on to be a great coach. When his Georgia Tech team won the ACC championship on their way to the Final Four in 1990, the Yellow Jackets did it in Charlotte. That was the first time the tournament was played there since 1970, when his great South Carolina team lost in Charlotte.
There was heartbreak for another college basketball team in 1970. Mark Scott, news director emeritus at WBFO in Buffalo reminded me that St. Bonaventure, the small Franciscan school near Buffalo, also had a great team that season, led by center Bob Lanier. He was the main reason St. Bonaventure made the Final Four. But Lanier didn’t get to play in that Final Four. He had suffered a season ending knee injury in the regional final game against Villanova.
That regional final game was played on South Carolina’s home court in Columbia. I don’t think Bobby Cremins was watching.
- Bobby Cremins, captain of the 1970 South Carolina Gamecocks men’s basketball team, at the University of South Carolina.