What Happened: Has Carolina Ever Played a Meaningful Consolation Game? (2024)

What Happened: Has Carolina Ever Played a Meaningful Consolation Game? (1)

Third-place games typically don’t mean much to a program with North Carolina’s pedigree, but an exception may be the 1958 Dixie Classic, the greatest in the 12-year history of the event created by former N.C. State Coach Everett Case.

That year the tournament not only featured four top-10 teams, record attendance at Reynolds Coliseum and racially historical appearances by Oscar Robertson and Johnny Green, but a third-place game that one knowledgeable observer called the best ever played in the iconic gym on N.C. State’s campus.

Carolina won that game. Why is it remembered to this day?

The facts

Case brought with him from Indiana a keen sense of how to build basketball culture when he came to N.C. State, leading him in 1949 to create an in-season tournament the week after Christmas. Butter Anderson, his assistant coach, suggested the name “Dixie Classic” and it immediately stuck. Tournament organizers so embraced the name, tone-deaf by today’s standards, that, as illustrated in the book Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum, the event’s program cover often depicted a minstrel show and, in 1952, the program contained the lyrics to “Dixie,” written in black dialect.

The tournament showcased basketball among the Big Four schools by inviting four top national contenders each year for an eight-team field. Within two years, the event began to live down to its racially charged name. Bethany Bradsher, in her book The Classic: How Everett Case and His Tournament Brought Big-Time Basketball to the South, writes that Oregon declined an invitation in 1950 after N.C. State’s athletic director suggested its black player not make the trip.

In 1957, a black player from Seton Hall played a small role in a Dixie Classic game, but the tournament and its all-white Big Four schools remained segregated. Case realized that bringing in the best teams would mean bringing in great black players.

That goal was met in 1958. Cincinnati, with All-American and future Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson, and Michigan State, with Johnny Green, another All-American, agreed to play - as long as the teams could sleep in the same building. They were not welcome in the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel, so Case made sleeping arrangements for both teams at a campus fraternity.

With those accommodations, the field was set. Cincinnati (2), North Carolina (3), N.C. State (6) and Michigan State (9) were all in the top 10 and would be at the end of the year. A tournament already known as the nation’s best holiday event now had, by far, its strongest field, energizing local fans. More than 4,000 scrapped for tickets outside as the first game tipped off in front of a capacity crowd of 12,400.

All four favorites won in the first round that included a physical incident between Wake Forest’s Dave Budd and Robertson that briefly heightened tensions. In the semifinals, N.C. State upset Cincinnati, 69-60, despite 29 points from Robertson, nine below his average. Case would later say that was the biggest win in his decorated 45-year career.

In the other bracket, Michigan State, behind Green’s 20 points and 14 rebounds, pulled away late from Carolina and won, 75-58, giving Green some redemption for the triple overtime loss he suffered against Carolina in the NCAA Final Four two seasons before.

Media and fans focused on the final between N.C. State and Michigan State. Big Four teams had won the previous nine Dixie Classics and it was an open secret that visiting teams expected home cooking from the refs for the local teams.

The third-place game, Cincinnati against North Carolina, would precede the final on New Year’s Eve. Coach Frank McGuire said he preferred his Tar Heels go home after losing and suggested he would use the consolation game to “experiment.”

Lee Shaffer, who would become ACC Player of the Year and second-team All-American the following year, remembers a first-year assistant coach giving the scouting report on Robertson and the Bearcats before the game.

“He diagrammed a lot of schemes on the blackboard,” Shaffer said of young Dean Smith. “Then right before game time, McGuire walks in and says, 'Forget the scouting report. Just go play like you’re on the playground.'"

The Tar Heels apparently needed to hear that. They shot 54% in the first half and led, 45-42. Both teams continued what was described as a “shooting clinic” in the second. “Both teams shot like pros,” McGuire said. The Charlotte Observer called it “the hottest shooting Dixie Classic game in 10 years of these derbies.”

Led by Robertson, Cincinnati took an 84-77 lead with 4:25 left. But Shaffer, York Larese and Doug Moe sparked a comeback that put Carolina ahead by one with the ball in the final half minute. Shaffer then dunked a missed shot, with newspaper accounts saying he “left his feet near the foul line.”

Shaffer added a free throw to complete a three-point play and Carolina withstood a final Robertson basket, the last of his 29 points, for a 90-88 win in a game that featured 15 lead changes and nine ties. Cincinnati lost just four games that year, one in the Final Four and two in the Dixie Classic.

“It was just like winning the championship,” Larese said. “I don’t know but that was a little better than winning the title. It seems that way at the moment, at any rate.”

N.C. State won the tournament two hours later, one of its best wins in school history. Yet observers continued to give high marks to the consolation game.

“A show of basketball at its best,” Dick Herbert wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer. “One of the finest games ever presented on the Coliseum court.”

Seven years later, Shaffer, who made an All-Star game in the NBA and was part of a trade for Wilt Chamberlain, visited N.C. State’s dying coach.

"I went to see Everett Case just before he died," Shaffer said in a 1994 interview. "He looked me in the eye and said, 'Lee, that was the greatest game ever played in Reynolds Coliseum.'"

Bet you didn’t know ….

The Tar Heels of 1957 were not one-year wonders. The 1958 team finished third in the ACC, just a game out of first, despite losing Joe Quigg to a broken leg before the year. The 1960 and ’61 teams won the regular season, with the ’60 team losing in the ACC semifinal to a 7-7 Duke team it had beaten by 22, 27 and 25 points and the ’61 team declining to play because it was ineligible for the postseason because of recruiting violations.

This brings us back to the ’59 team. Visiting coaches at the Dixie Classic considered Carolina, completely remade from the ’57 squad, a national contender. In January, third-ranked UNC beat top-ranked N.C. State in Raleigh by four, taking a time out with one second left to enjoy the scene. The Tar Heels, then top-ranked, beat State again the next month in Chapel Hill.

Carolina dropped two games late to fall into a tie with State for the regular season title. They met in the ACC final with State ineligible for postseason play and the Tar Heels guaranteed an NCAA berth. With his focus set on the upcoming NCAA Tournament, McGuire played his subs liberally throughout the game and, when the N.C. State lead grew to 13, benched his starters for good. State fans assumed McGuire was tanking the game, and one aggravated fan broke into the Reynolds Coliseum basem*nt and cut the lights, causing an eight-minute delay.

State led 80-56 with four seconds left when the Wolfpack players called time out, payback for the needless timeout Carolina called earlier in Raleigh.

Whatever rest UNC gained didn’t help in the NCAA first round against heavy underdog Navy. The Tar Heels lost 76-63. A team many thought to be better than the ’57 champions lost four of its final seven after winning 17 of the first 18.

The Dixie Classic ended after the 1960-61 season, a step UNC System President William Friday took to de-emphasize basketball after gambling and point-shaving scandals at N.C. State and Carolina. McGuire left after the same season for the NBA, leaving Friday to hire a young assistant, charging him with not embarrassing the university and ensuring players graduated. That assistant was Dean Smith.

In conclusion ….

Third-place games typically are not remembered in Carolina basketball lore but this one is. Not only was it socially significant – all four Big Four teams had integrated within a decade following Oscar Robertson’s visit to Dixie – but it was considered among purists as one of the best games ever played in the state. Tim Peeler, an N.C. State historian, wrote in 2008 that it may only trail the 1974 ACC Tournament Championship game in Greensboro among the best inside North Carolina lines.

Think about that statement. Two Final Fours, including N.C. State’s historic un-seating of seven-time champion UCLA, had been played in North Carolina, along with numerous NCAA regionals and ACC tournaments. Yet a forgettable third-place game played during a basically forgotten Carolina era that ended in shame stands out today.

What Happened: Has Carolina Ever Played a Meaningful Consolation Game? (2024)


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