WVU Shocks No. 17 Irish
By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
January 7, 2002
MORGANTOWN, W.VA. (Feb. 19, 1977) – Nothing in West Virginia’s record in 1977 led Notre Dame Coach Digger Phelps to believe his team was in any danger of losing its game against the Mountaineers at the WVU Coliseum on Feb. 19, 1977.
After all WVU (14-9) had lost contests to Rutgers and Penn State leading up to its Saturday afternoon meeting with the No. 17-ranked Irish (17-5).
The 1976-77 West Virginia University basketball season proved to be a stark contrast between the very good and the very bad.
When the Mountaineers were playing their best they were defeating teams like Massachusetts and Syracuse to take the Hall of Fame Tournament in Springfield, Mass. When things weren’t going as well, they were losing to teams like St. Francis, Pa., George Washington and Duquesne in the middle of a five-game midseason losing streak.
Although West Virginia didn’t possesses a dominating big man, third-year Coach Joedy Gardner had a reasonably talented lineup that included 6-5 senior Tony Robertson, 6-7 junior Maurice Robinson, 6-7 senior Russell Chapman, 6-6 junior Sid Bostick, and a fiery 6-4 senior point guard named Bobby Huggins.
Gardner plucked Robertson out of the junior college ranks and the smooth-shooting guard became the team’s top scorer during his first year in the program. The Detroit, Mich., native averaged 17.9 points per game and shot 53.0 percent from the field to help WVU to a 15-13 mark in 1976. Teaming with Robertson was 6-7 forward Maurice “Mo” Robinson, who Gardner successfully recruited just a month after accepting the WVU job in the spring of 1975.
Robinson was the son of a coal miner from Welch, W.Va., where he earned prep All-America honors at Welch High School. Robinson was all set to sign with Maryland before Gardner jumped into the foray late and persuaded the forward to reconsider West Virginia. Robinson pulled down 19 rebounds in one game as a freshman, but proved to be somewhat of an enigma as a sophomore before coming into his own as a junior in 1977.
Chapman joined the WVU program in 1976 following a two-year stop in the junior college ranks. The Toledo, Ohio, native was a remarkable leaper who possessed an accurate medium range jump shot. He worked his way into the lineup midway through the ’76 season and was a regular in 1977. Bostick came from nearby Jeannette, Pa., and worked his way into a starting role by his junior season in 1977. His extraordinary quickness enabled him to pull down an average of 6.3 rebounds per game.
And finally there was Huggins, who was the glue that kept the team together at point guard. His style included an in-your-face defensive approach that opposing players sometimes found offending. In addition to his combative nature, Huggins was an honor student with a nearly perfect grade point average. His loss would be felt greatly in 1978.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, was coming to Morgantown riding a nine-game winning streak. The Irish ran off seven straight wins to start the season, including triumphs over No. 8 Maryland, No. 7 UCLA and No. 4 Indiana before dropping a 102-72 decision to No. 2 Kentucky on Dec. 30. Losses followed against Princeton, Villanova, Marquette and UCLA before Notre Dame got things turned around with its nine-game winning streak.
Head Coach Richard “Digger Phelps” took over the Notre Dame program a year after an impressive 26-3 record at Fordham in 1971. Phelps endured a losing season in 1972 before leading the Irish to an 18-12 mark in 1973.
Phelps directed Notre Dame to a 26-3 record in 1974 and the first of its run of eight straight NCAA tournament appearances from 1974-81.
By 1977 with All-American Adrian Dantley gone to the NBA, Phelps had a retooled lineup that included a pair of 6-9 forwards in Toby Knight and Dave Batton. They were two of five double-figure scorers for Notre Dame that season. Although the Irish were in the midst of its season-long nine-game winning streak, they had to come from seven points down midway through the second half to defeat Manhattan two days before the West Virginia game. Notre Dame’s front line eventually wore down Manhattan and Phelps expected the Irish to do the same against the Mountaineers, which didn’t have a starter standing taller than 6-7.
A crowd of 13,151 that included NBC announcers Marv Albert and former West Virginia Coach Bucky Waters showed up for the afternoon affair.
From the start the fired up Mountaineers appeared to be a step quicker than its road weary visitors. Robertson stole the opening tip and delivered the basketball to Bostick for a pretty driving layup. Huggins then converted a running hook shot and Bostick added two more from the line to give WVU a quick 6-0 lead.
West Virginia pushed the margin out to 18-10 when reserve center Junius Lewis hit a nice turnaround shot in the lane with 12:57 left in the first half.
A 6-2 WVU run pushed the advantage to 24-12 after Robertson converted a foul line jumper with 10:10 to go. Notre Dame trimmed the deficit to nine on a 15-foot jumper by Bruce Flowers to make the score 25-16, but West Virginia finished the half with a 15-11 run to take a 40-27 lead into the locker room.
Notre Dame patiently whittled West Virginia’s lead down to five points at the 10-minute mark of the second half when Rich Branning hit a jumper to close the gap to 55-50. But Maurice Robinson responded with a nice bank shot from eight feet and Huggins added a nifty running jumper to push the WVU lead back out to nine.
At that point Robinson took over the game with his quick leaping and powerful moves to the basket. He scored 14 points over the game’s remaining 10:10, including three straight baskets from 4:43 to 3:26 to keep West Virginia comfortably ahead of the Irish.
Robinson proved to be West Virginia’s main man, scoring a game-high 21 points to go along with 15 rebounds.
Big “Mo” operated virtually at will inside against Notre Dame’s much taller front line. He could have had at least four more points but missed two slam dunk attempts.
“My mind told me I could make them but my body said no. I shouldn’t have tried them,” Robinson said.
All five of West Virginia’s starters contributed to the 81-68 victory. Bostick hit 7-of-9 shots for 16 points and also had 6 steals. Robertson and Huggins chipped in with 14 points each while Chapman added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“My family from Detroit was here,” said Robertson. “Everyone else back home was watching us play. They wanted to see us do well. We had a lot to prove. We had to show people that we could play with anyone in the country.”
Six-eleven Junius Lewis came off the bench to add five points and four rebounds in 15 minutes worth of work.
Knight led the Irish with 16 and Flowers had 13 points and 10 rebounds before fouling out with 9:04 left.
Phelps, who spent the entire game kneeling in front of his bench and arguing with the officials during time outs, offered this comment after the game: “West Virginia played very, very well. Their front line did an excellent job of rebounding against us. We had way too many turnovers and that was the turning point of the game. West Virginia deserved to win.”
Notre Dame came into the game as the nation’s top rebounding team but was out-rebounded by the smaller Mountaineers, 43-39.
In a novel concept at the time, Gardner was fitted with a microphone which he wore during the game so NBC viewers could hear his comments.
“I’ve got guts, don’t I?” he said. “I don’t use any swear words or vulgarity on the bench. If I start to swear, I’ll say ‘crimminy’ and stop.”
Gardner thought his team’s shot selection was “superb” in the first half. In the second half West Virginia used poor judgment on some dunk attempts. “Our players were trying to put some icing on the cake,” he said. “They felt Notre Dame sort of rubbed it in on us up there last year (West Virginia lost 97-77 at South Bend in 1976).”
Despite his team collecting its first victory over a nationally ranked team in seven years, Gardner thought WVU performed better in earlier wins that season against Pitt and Virginia Tech.
The Mountaineers missed four dunk attempts in the second half. Robinson made 2-of-4 stuff-shot attempts while Chapman was 1-of-3. When a WVU player converted one, however, it seemed to ignite the team and the fans.
There was one unusual play in the game. Robertson was at the foul line getting ready to attempt a free throw but he dropped the ball and stepped over the foul line to retrieve it. Office Gene Steratore ruled it a lane violation and counted it as a miss for Tony R.
Fifty former WVU basketball greats were among the capacity crowd in attendance. The ex-players included Willie Akers, Warren Baker, Eddie Beach, Stan Boskovich, Dick DuBois, Sleepy Glenn, Clyde Green, Ernest Hall, Mike Heitz, Ralph Holmes, Clayce Kisbaugh, Bill Maphis, Ronnie Retton, Dave Shuck, Dave Steindler, Pete White and Bob Hummell.
West Virginia came out of the clouds long enough to collect wins over Cleveland State and Buffalo to finish the regular season with a 17-9 regular season record. The Mountaineers outlasted Pitt, 66-54 in the first round of the ECBL tournament in Philadelphia before losing, 83-75 in overtime to Villanova in the semifinals. WVU also dropped a 93-83 decision to UMass in the consolation game to finish the year, 18-11.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, recovered to win all four of its remaining regular season games against Loyola (Chicago), LaSalle, San Francisco and DePaul to register a 21-6 regular season mark.
The Irish got past Hofstra in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to No. 10 North Carolina in the second round, 79-77.
A year later in 1978, Phelps led Notre Dame to a 23-8 record and the school’s only Final Four appearance after NCAA tournament victories over Houston, Utah and DePaul. Notre Dame’s postseason run came to an end when Duke clipped them, 90-86 in the the national semifinals.
West Virginia 81, Notre Dame 68
Notre Dame (17-5)
West Virginia (15-9)
Halftime-West Virginia 40-27. Fouled out- Flowers. Rebounds-Notre Dame 39 (Flowers 10), West Virginia 43 (Robinson 15). Assists-Notre Dame 10 (Branning 3), West Virginia 20 (Robertson 7). Total fouls-Notre Dame 24, West Virginia 14. Technicals- None.
Attendance – 13,151.