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March 13, 2014

Miracle at Madison Square Garden not a thing of the past for '73 NIT title team

By: Jimmy Robertson

More than 40 years have passed since the Tech basketball team won four games by five points to claim the 1973 NIT crown – but the former players and coaches remember vividly how they pulled it off

Nearly every member of the 1973 NIT team was making his first trip to New York City, where the Gobblers played at Madison Square Garden - the “World’s Most Famous Arena.”

Here they stood, a cast of misfits mostly from all over Virginia playing on a team with a funny nickname and trying to do something that had never been done at their school. They were playing basketball in the world’s most famous arena, a lengthy haul from their basketball home in Southwest Virginia. Only 12 seconds remained on the clock, and their leader, not much older than them, had just finished drawing a final play, one that would hopefully produce the two points needed to send them to basketball glory.

The Gobblers, as they were known in 1973, inbounded the ball, and the clock started ticking toward their destiny, whatever it may be.


The season had begun with low expectations, as five seniors needed to be replaced off the 1971-72 squad that went 16-10. A hodgepodge of returning players, junior-college transfers and freshmen comprised the roster, and 31-year-old coach Don DeVoe was tasked with making this group into a respectable team.


The team’s best player was Allan Bristow, who had two offers coming out of Henrico High School in Richmond – both for swimming. Yet Bristow went into the NIT averaging more than 24 points and 11 rebounds per game.


The Gobblers finished the regular season with 18 wins, including victories at Ohio State, home vs. Florida State and at St. Bonaventure.


Losses to basketball lightweights Toledo and Richmond, the latter of which ended in controversy, probably cost them an NCAA Tournament bid. More than 40 years later, DeVoe still swears that Ed Frazier’s tip-in at the buzzer against the Spiders should have counted. The Gobblers lost 94-93 in two overtimes.


The NCAA Tournament back then consisted only of conference champions and the premium of the independents. So the 16-team NIT got the best of the rest, and in 1973, it featured some serious hoops muscle in North Carolina, Alabama, Minnesota, Louisville and Notre Dame.


The Gobblers had upset New Mexico in the first round by a score of 65-63, getting 26 points and 10 boards from Bristow. They nearly saw their New York City experience cut short by Fairfield, a gritty little team out of Connecticut. But Tech got 24 points from Craig Lieder and rallied from a nine-point halftime hole to escape with a 77-76 win.


The Gobblers went on to beat Alabama in the semifinals, advancing to the NIT championship game, where they would face Notre Dame. The Irish managed to fight off the Tar Heels to advance.


Notre Dame had taken a 10-point lead in the second half. Tech, though, had come back and trailed by two points with five seconds left. Lieder splashed in a 15-foot jumper and to send the game into overtime.


Tech trailed Notre Dame by four with less than a minute to go. But Bobby Stevens’ three-point play with 43 seconds left cut the lead to 91-90. The Gobblers got the ball back after Notre Dame missed a one-and-one, and they called that timeout. The final play broke down, and Stevens launched a jumper – that missed.


Bristow got a hand on the ball, but couldn’t corral it. Stevens, alertly following his shot, chased it down.


Stevens hoisted the final shot of the season, one that, in some way or another, would change Tech’s destiny.

DeVoe builds championship team

Today’s Tech fan barely realizes that the school’s basketball history extends beyond the playing days of the wonderful Dell Curry or the terrific Bimbo Coles, arguably the two best players in school history and both of whom played in the 1980s. But the school played solid basketball in the 1950s and 60s, too, when guys like Chris Smith, Bob Ayersman, Howard Pardue and Glen Combs were setting records.

Allan Bristow (44), Ed Frazier (20), Calvin Wade (14), Craig Lieder
and the Gobblers outlasted Notre Dame 92-91 in overtime to claim
the program’s first major championship.

In the late 1960s, Howard Shannon oversaw the program. Taking over in 1964, Shannon served as the head coach for seven years, and in 1967, he led the Gobblers to their first NCAA Tournament. They made it to the Mideast Regional final before losing to Dayton in overtime.

In 1971, Shannon resigned, deciding to accept a full-time position in Tech’s physical education department. He went 104-67 during his tenure as the coach and had just one losing season.

Enter DeVoe, one of the youngest coaches in the country. Hired by then-AD Frank Moseley at the age of 29, DeVoe came over from Army, where he had been serving as an assistant to future Hall of Fame coach Bobby Knight. DeVoe inherited a good situation. In 1971-72, the Gobblers went 16-10 in his first season.

“The first year I was here, we had five seniors, and they just gave me a tremendous effort in everything,” DeVoe said.

The star, though, was a junior – Bristow, who averaged 25 points and 13.4 rebounds per game. The Gobblers lost three of their four top scorers after that season, but they returned Bristow, Frazier, who had averaged 7.3 points per game, and Lieder, who had averaged 6 points per game.

To replace those seniors, DeVoe relied on transfers and freshmen. Stevens and Charlie Thomas transferred in from Ferrum Junior College and became starters. Calvin Wade transferred from Mount Olive Junior College in North Carolina and was the team’s sixth man, and DeVoe recruited two freshmen to come in and play key roles – Dave Sensibaugh, a guard from Lockland, Ohio, and Kyle McKee, a post player from Richmond, Ind. The 1972-73 season marked the first season in which the NCAA shelved its rule forcing freshmen to sit out their first year, thus allowing them to play immediately.

The Gobblers would be tested early that season. As an independent, they found scheduling much more difficult and wound up playing a lot of good teams. They played North Carolina in Charlotte, N.C., in their second game, and then traveled to Ohio State for a game against DeVoe’s alma mater in their fifth game.

“Expectations weren’t off the charts for us,” DeVoe said. “In those years, we were an independent. So I really beefed up our schedule. We played at Ohio State, and we played Memphis, and we won a key game at St. Bonaventure early in January where no one had ever won. There were key games all year that we were able to pull out, and when it came selection time [for the NIT], we had an impressive record.”

The game against Ohio State served as a springboard of sorts for the team. The Gobblers won 67-62 for their third straight win. Ohio State had won the Big 10 title just two years prior.

The Gobblers ended up winning nine in a row. The streak ended with a setback to Florida, but the Gobblers responded by winning three straight after that loss, including a win over Florida State. So after that loss to North Carolina, they had won 12 of 13 games.

“I thought the turning point was when we went to Ohio State and upset Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio,” Sensibaugh said. “Then we knew something special was going on because we competed so well against them. Then we had Florida State, with Reggie Royals [a 6-10 center] and Otto Petty [a 5-7 point guard], and we beat them in Cassell Coliseum, which was huge. As time went along, we were achieving more than anyone ever would have thought.”

After losing at Toledo, the Gobblers closed the season with wins over Virginia and West Virginia to finish 18-5 and easily got into the NIT.

Members of the 1973 NIT championship team returned to Blacksburg last fall to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the team’s accomplishment. The Gobblers were the first basketball team from Virginia to win a major championship.

“The NIT, in that era, was the tournament,” Stevens said. “Everyone wanted to play in Madison Square Garden, and you went up there for the full week. We would have liked to have gone to the NCAA, but we were proud of our accomplishments because we had heard so much about the prestige [of the NIT] and just the fact that you were going to New York. You were going to be in New York for seven straight days if you could survive.”

Four wins by five points

For most of the players on the 1972-73 team, the trip marked their first to New York City. DeVoe had made many trips into the city while as an assistant for Knight at Army, but other than him, no one knew what to expect. Most of them had not packed a lot in the way of clothes. They didn’t expect to be there long.

“You wore your shirt inside-out so you could get the 2-for-1 deal,” Stevens joked. “We stayed in a Ramada Inn on 84th and 7th. I can still remember it. We had the same lunch – cheeseburger, fries and cheesecake. The waitress [at the local restaurant] got to know us. We spent a lot of time there.

“It was a big thing for us because very few of us had visited New York City. We played in the mystique of Madison Square Garden and the [NBA’s] New York Knickerbockers. We got to see Willis Reed and Clyde [Frazier] coming off the floor. It was a wonderful experience for guys who are 20 years old.”

Tech upset New Mexico in the first round. Thomas, the junior-college transfer from Ferrum, was known more for his defensive prowess, but he hit the game-winning shot with 33 seconds left to lift the Gobblers to a 65-63 victory. That turned out to be their largest margin of victory in the tournament.

In the next game, they rallied to beat Fairfield 77-76, and then in the semifinals against Alabama, they trailed by five with 3:05 left. But Thomas scored twice to cut the lead to 71-70. A basket by Frazier and two free throws by Stevens capped an 8-0 run that gave the Gobblers a 74-71 lead and they held on for a 74-73 win.

That put the Gobblers into the championship game against Notre Dame, which was coached by Digger Phelps. Interestingly, Phelps reportedly had expressed interest in the Tech job while serving as the head coach at Fordham, but he wanted to see what Notre Dame officials were going to do first, and Moseley ultimately hired DeVoe.

It worked out for Phelps. In May of 1971, he got the Notre Dame job.

DeVoe, who now lives in Annapolis, Md., and serves on the NIT selection committee, quietly expressed joy at the Irish’s beating of North Carolina in the semifinal. He thought a rematch with the Tar Heels, whom the Gobblers had played in the second game of the season, favored North Carolina.

“I thought North Carolina would be more prepared mentally because we had played them before,” he said. “I didn’t think the Notre Dame players would have as much respect for us.”

The game went like all of Tech’s other games – back and forth. The Gobblers held 10-point leads on three different occasions in the first half. Yet the Irish’s press caused problems, and the Gobblers led by just four at halftime.

In the second half, Notre Dame captured the lead and led by as many as 10 points with less than eight minutes to play. But the Gobblers rallied and cut it to two points with 5 seconds left. With the ball, the Gobblers got it to Lieder. He calmly stroked a 15-footer at the buzzer to tie the game and send it to overtime.

“In each game, someone else stepped up to the plate,” Stevens said.

Tech, though, appeared doomed in overtime, falling behind 91-87 with 55 seconds remaining. It looked like this fairy tale wasn’t going to have the fairy tale ending.

Yet Stevens, all 5-foot-10 of him, refused to let the Gobblers go away. With 43 seconds left, he hit a jumper and was fouled. The free throw cut the lead to one. Then Thomas fouled Notre Dame’s Gary Brokaw. Brokaw, who had scored 23 points, went to the free-throw line for a one-and-one. He missed.

Tech called a timeout with 12 seconds left. DeVoe knew exactly what he wanted to do.

“I wanted to get the ball back to Lieder again,” he said.

Notre Dame defended it well, and Stevens found himself with the ball and the season winding down. He dribbled to the free-throw line and gave a fake, getting Notre Dame’s Dwight Clay off his feet just enough to let him launch a shot. The shot hit the right side of the rim and bounced away.

Bristow somehow got a hand on the ball among all the bodies in the post, and the ball ricocheted toward the perimeter. Stevens chased it down

He grabbed it, took two dribbles toward the right wing and let it fly. Somehow, Willie Townsend did not block it.

The ball stayed in the air for seemingly an eternity, arcing through the humid air in the world’s most famous building. It finally landed softly in the net just as the horn sounded. The two points gave the Gobblers a 92-91 victory over Notre Dame and the NIT championship.

“You practice that as a kid,” Stevens said of the shot. “Back then, it was [former NBA great] Jerry West, and it’s ‘4, 3, 2, 1 …’ You never think that is going to happen, but you practice it. I was fortunate to hit the game winner.

“A lot of people ask me, ‘What were you thinking?’ Well, you don’t. Basketball is a reactionary game. I saw a loose ball, and then you’re trying to scramble and get the shot off. That’s all that was in my mind – getting a good shot off. When I look at the replay, that was a much better shot than the first one.”

For Stevens, his 16th and 17th points of the game ended a personal curse of second-places finishes. His high school team, Norfolk Catholic, lost twice in the state finals, and Ferrum lost in the championship game of the junior college tournament the year before Stevens arrived at Tech.

His shot set off a wild celebration at Madison Square Garden, as players and coaches poured onto the court. Lieder and a couple of others mobbed Stevens, and the cheerleaders and even a few fans got into the fray.

Lieder finished with 27 points in the game, and Bristow scored 24 and grabbed 14 rebounds. But neither cared about those numbers.

All that mattered to them was this – Tech became the first college in Virginia to win a major championship.

Impact on the program

The celebration lasted well into the evening. In fact, it lasted for days. A crowd of more than 5,000 greeted the team when it arrived back in Blacksburg, and the state reveled in the team’s accomplishment.

Even the governor at the time, Linwood Holton, got involved. He invited the team to Richmond for a dinner to celebrate the championship. Not long after their return home, the players and coaches flew to Richmond for dinner at the governor’s mansion.

More importantly, the impact would be felt for years to come. The win gave Tech an identity and name recognition. The program started getting better players, as evidenced by three postseason berths in a four-season span. Tech received bids to play in the NCAA Tournament in 1976 and 1979, and the program also received another NIT bid in 1977.

The success led to an important moment in Tech’s history – an invitation to join the Metro Conference, which came in the summer of 1978. The 1979-80 season marked an end to a 13-year run as an independent for the school.

Most credit the NIT championship for leading to conference affiliation.

“I think it put us on the map and got people’s attention,” Sensibaugh said. “The next year, we didn’t sneak up on anybody. We had the bulk of the team back, but we weren’t sneaking up on anybody. But it [the title] helped us recruit and build, and after those years, we had quite a bit of success. We were able to move into the Metro Conference, so I think it helped us. It was a springboard for bigger things.”

This past fall, several members of the squad returned to Blacksburg to celebrate their accomplishment and their role in Tech basketball history. The group included DeVoe, Bristow, Stevens, Sensibaugh and others. Stevens is still regaled among Hokie Nation as a hero. He regularly gets asked about “the shot.” A physical science teacher at Rock Hill High School in Rock Hill, S.C., Stevens gets asked about the shot by his students, who somehow find out about his exploits each year. He breaks out the film when they ask him about it.

More than 40 years have passed since that March day in 1973. During a basketball practice that they attended to watch this year’s squad, the former players laughed and carried on just as they did while in college. They joked that their hair is grayer and their midsections are wider than the current group of Hokies.

That may be true. But their memory – particularly of what happened in New York City that year – well, it’s sharper than ever.