On March 26, 1977, UNLV played in the Final Four for the first time. I was the point guard on that team; we were 28-2 heading into the battle, and we’d averaged well over 100 points a game. At one point, we’d scored 100 in 12 straight games. The scent of a national championship hung in the air. But on that day, we lost to Phil Ford, Mike O’Koren and the North Carolina Tar Heels, 84-83. Ever since then, North Carolina has had a special place in Rebel lore.
When the Rebels played the Tar Heels in 2011 at the Orleans Arena, a lot of fans I knew in the ’70s were back in the seats. And the Rebels’ stunning 90-80 victory that day helped bring plenty of old-school supporters back to the program for good. From what I’m hearing, some of them will make the trip back to Chapel Hill this weekend. That’s a wonderful thing to see; in my playing days, it always fired me up to see our fans in an opposing arena. And although the Tar Heels aren’t ranked right now, you better believe they’ll be waiting for this game.
Both teams are young, and North Carolina’s young players are still growing up. But in games like these, some players grow up real fast; the Rebels are hoping that won’t be the case in Tar Heel country. UNLV will have to get off to a fast start and take the fans out of the game, because the 21,750-seat Dean Smith Center can get very loud if it’s sold out. The Rebels have to rebound well and play solid defense on the road; the good news is that they’ve done a great job playing away from home this year.
The game is bound to bring back memories for longtime fans. A big win on at Chapel Hill won’t quite heal the sting from that long-ago Final Four loss. But it sure would be sweet.
Robert Smith, a star UNLV point guard from 1974-77, is part of the Rebel broadcast team on ESPN Radio 1100.