By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Modern day college basketball fans find it easy to remember Cinderella runs in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, with television outlets like CBS Sports and ESPN showing buzzer-beating shots so often that the “one shining moment” of various teams get burned into our brains.
But before Magic Johnson of Michigan State and Larry Bird of Indiana State changed the tournament into March Madness, there was a time when the exploits of underdogs went largely unnoticed.
How many basketball fans remember, for example, that Virginia Military Institute was a win away from the Final Four in 1976 and that the Keydets turned around and reached the Sweet 16 again a year later?
Were the Running Roos, as they were often called back then (a reference to the silly, Kangaroo mascot, who showed up at games), to do that in these times, VMI would be viewed with similar fanfare as Butler, or Gonzaga.
But even to the most hard-core fans, those Ron Carter-led, Keydet teams of the mid-1970s are lost to history.
Over the years, I have had the luxury of sitting through many a late night in a Southern Conference hospitality suite, at banquets and on long bus trips with friends like VMI sports information director Wade Branner, Keydet athletic director Donnie White, ex-Furman and Appalachian State SID Rick Covington writers like columnist Ken Burger of the Charleston Post & Courier and Lennox Rawlings of the Winston-Salem Journal and coaches such as former ASU basketball headman Tom Apke and Davidson’s Bob McKillop taking me on SoCon history tours.
VMI’s history as a charter member of the SoCon is indeed one for the history books, but the Keydets have continued on, writing new chapters in the Big South Conference.
Some of those old stories came back to my memory on Thursday night as I watched VMI shock the Big South by marching into the league’s championship game as a No. 7 seed. All that stands in the way of the Keydets and their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1977 is a win on Saturday against top-seeded UNC-Asheville (23-9).
The Bulldogs toppled Charleston Southern, 91-64, behind 27 points from J.P. Primm in the semifinals, playing at home in Kimmel Arena.
The game will be televised by ESPN2 at noon on Saturday, with the winner clinching the first berth into the NCAA tournament field.
VMI downed Winthrop in impressive fashion, 75-55, in the first of Thursday’s two semifinals. UNCA followed with an easy win over Charleston Southern,
D.J. Covington was a perfect 6-of-6 from the floor and matched his season-high with 16 points, while Stan Okoye added a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds for the Keydets (17-15).
The high-speed VMI offense hit 53 percent of its shots from the field to keep the pressure on the Eagles.
Winthrop had upset third-seeded Campbell, 71-55, on Wednesday in its first-round game.
That came a night after the Keydets upset No. 2-seeded Coastal Carolina (19-11) by drilling 14 three-pointers and connecting on 57 percent of their shots in an 85-68 victory.
Keith Gabriel scored 20 points to pace VMI, which had shot just 28 percent and lost by 17 points to CCU in its regular-season finale four days earlier.
The Keydets needed a nail-biting 55-53 win over Radford on Monday just to reach the quarterfinals in Asheville.
It will be the Keydets’ third opportunity to win a Big South tournament crown. VMI also reached league title games in 2007 and 2009, but fell short both times as No. 6 and No. 2 seeds.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
VMI has made three previous NCAA tournament appearances, losing in its initial trip, 86-60, to Princeton in a first-round game in 1964, as a junior named Bill Bradley scored 34 points for the Tigers.
A name that would resonate later on for the Keydets, senior Bill Blair, paced VMI with 20 points, while sophomore Joe Kruszewski added 19.
That Keydet team, coached by L.F. Miller, was just 12-12 overall, but VMI caught fire to win the Southern Conference tournament with wins over Furman and Davidson before stopping George Washington, 61-56, in the final at the Charlotte Coliseum.
THE ELITE EIGHT
VMI was actually the favorite for the Southern Conference tournament crown in 1976 after winning the first of its only two regular-season titles in the league.
By then, Blair was in his fourth year as head coach and he had assembled an impressive team, led by future Los Angeles Laker and Indiana Pacer Ron Carter.
The Keydets survived a close call to beat Davidson, 71-69, in the first round of the tournament and edged Appalachian State, 71-64, to reach the championship game against Richmond.
The Spiders tried to take the air out of the ball in the era before the 45-second shot clock, but VMI still managed to take a 41-33 decision to reach the NCAA tournament.
While everyone was watching to see if Indiana would complete the last perfect season in NCAA Division I history with a national championship, VMI made its presence known with an 81-75 upset against Tennessee as Wayne Bynum tossed in 20 points, Ron Carter tallied 19 and John Krovic added 17 to offset 36 points from All-American Ernie Grunfield.
Awaiting the Keydets in the East Regional Semifinals was a Ray Meyer-coached DePaul squad that featured Dave Corzine, Ron Norwood and Cedric Watkins among others.
Bynum and Carter were a one-two punch for VMI, however, with 22 and 21 points respectively and Dave Montgomery added 12 as the Keydets held the Blue Demons off 71-66 in overtime.
It was a battle of attrition for VMI, as DePaul lost Norwood (23 points), Corzine (14), Watkins (10), Gary Garland and Andy Pancratz to fouls.
The Blue Demons committed 35 fouls, compared to 22 for the disciplined Keydets and Corzine also had a costly technical foul.
That set up an encounter with an undefeated Rutgers team in the East Regional final.
Rutgers had the athletes to offset talented players like Carter and Bynum, with Phil Sellers, Eddie Jordan and Mike Dabney in the lineup.
The high-scoring Scarlet Knights built a 48-34 lead in the first half and cruised to a 91-75 victory as Dabney and Jordan scored 23 points each and Sellers added 16 to counter Bynum’s 34-point effort, 15 points from Carter and 10 by Krovic.
But VMI had finished with a 22-10 record to establish itself as a team to watch.
Blair used VMI’s run to the Elite Eight to vault himself into the Colorado coaching job and he was replaced by Charles Schmaus, who like Blair had been an All-Southern Conference performer and had also played on that 1964 Keydet NCAA squad before becoming Blair’s assistant.
Beaming with confidence, VMI went 26-4 and tied for the Southern Conference regular season title with Furman.
The tournament-tested Keydets rolled past East Carolina, 88-77, and stopped a Bobby Cremins-coached Appalachian State team in overtime, 69-67, to win the SoCon tournament.
VMI drew Duquesne in the first round of the East Regional and struggled to a 33-33 halftime tie before pulling away for a 73-66 win.
Carter and Bynum both popped in 18 points and Montgomery contributed 17 to offset a 27-point performance by future Los Angeles Lakers star Norm Nixon.
But the Keydets ran into defending national champion Kentucky in the East Regional semifinals.
Carter was brilliant with 28 points and 10 rebounds, while Montgomery added 18 and Bynum scored 12. That trio helped VMI stay in the game in the first half, trailing 44-41 at the intermission.
But the big, powerful Wildcats wore the Keydets down in the second half. With Truman Claytor pumping in 29 points and Jack “Goose” Givens adding 26, Kentucky roared to a 93-78 victory.
Schmaus led the Keydets to a 21-7 record and a second-place finish in the SoCon a year later, but he also suffered through a 4-23 season in 1981 and a dreadful 1-25 mark in 1982 before leaving the program.
And VMI hasn’t been back to the NCAA tournament since.
SATURDAY’S TITLE GAME
VMI will have its hands full with UNCA in the Big South championship game. The Bulldogs beat the Keydets twice during the regular season, taking a 94-85 decision in Asheville on Jan. 5 and holding off VMI, 89-86, on Feb. 2 in Lexington, VA. behind 26 points from Matt Dickey.
VMI had two chances to sink game-tying treys in the final 15 seconds, but came up short.
UNCA is looking to win back-to-back Big South tournament crowns for the first time in school history, but the Bulldogs have never faced VMI in postseason play.
Primm is averaging 21 points per game in the tournament, while Chris Stephenson had been scoring at an 18-point-per-game clip.
Jeremy Atkinson was a perfect 11-for-11 from the free-throw line for UNCA on Thursday.
One other player to keep an eye on is 6-foot-4 freshman guard Keith Hornsby, the best dunker on the Bulldog team. Hornsby is the son of music legend Bruce Hornsby.