Item: The just concluded NCAA basketball season did not end up with perfection for Gonzaga, knocked out early in its one-sided loss to Baylor in Monday’s championship game. In fact, Gonzaga just squeaked into the title game with an overtime win over UCLA. It was the Bruins third OT game in the 2021 Indiana-based tournament, matching a mark set by the out-of-nowhere 1975 Syracuse team, a squad that made the first Final Four in school history.
Taking a look back at the three overtime games Syracuse played in the 1975 NCAA Tournament, the first occurrence was inches away from ending the wrong way; the second OT contest had a miracle final play of regulation, and the last occurred in the long forgotten national third-place game in San Diego, more of a distraction that night as a prelude to John Wooden’s final game as a head coach at UCLA.
First Round – The Palestra, Philadelphia: Jim Boeheim’s first experience on the bench in the Final Four was as an assistant coach to Roy Danforth, who was one season away from leaving SU for Tulane after the 1975-76 season. The Orangemen finished the season 18-7, then won the ECAC playoffs in Buffalo earning a NCAA invitation with the field expanded that year to 32 teams.
The first-round game, not televised, was a rematch against La Salle, a team SU beat 82-78 in the regular season at Manley Field House. This time playing against the hometown Philadelphia school on a neutral floor, SU escaped when a shot by Explorers big man Joe “Jellybean” Bryant (Kobe Bryant’s father) teasingly spun on the rim and fell out at the end of regulation.
Given new life, Syracuse center Rudy Hackett scored six of his 30 points in OT, and along with clutch late free throws by guards Jim Lee and Ross Kindel preserved another four-point victory 87-83, and a trip to the East Region semifinals.
Regional Final – Providence Civic Center, Providence: This was the first time the downtown Providence arena hosted NCAA Tournament games and the Orangemen stole the show. After pulling the biggest upset of the regional by ousting North Carolina 78-76 two days earlier on Lee’s 20-foot jumper with five seconds to play, Syracuse faced Kansas State in a nationally televised game on NBC (not commonplace at the time with regional network TVS handling most broadcasts) for a berth in the Final Four.
The Wildcats were led by guard Chuckie Williams who played in the game wearing a scary looking mask to protect a broken nose. But it was another Syracuse guard, also with the surname “Williams” who stole the show.
Down 76-74 with five second left after K-State’s Williams canned a mid-range jumper, SU called timeout. Inbounding the ball to its fastest player, Jimmy “Don’t Call Me Bug” Williams, the Orange guard zoomed at full speed into the frontcourt, fed Hackett a pass in the key, and he spun and shot the ball into the basket right at the regulation buzzer.
In the extra session, Hackett and Lee hit key shots on route to combining for 53 points, and regional program Syracuse shocked the world of college basketball by making it to the Final Four with a 95-87 comeback victory.
National Third-Place Game – San Diego Sports Arena, San Diego: Syracuse was brought back to reality on the big stage of the national semifinals, in the first NCAA tournament game played in San Diego.
In another NBC national telecast, with Curt Gowdy handling play-by-play and Billy Packer making his Final Four debut as the championship game TV analyst, a job he would hold for 35 years until 2008, Syracuse did not fare well. Facing a bigger, stronger, and deeper Kentucky team that edged Indiana 92-90 to make the Final Four, SU was simply outclassed falling 95-79 in a bruising affair (61 total fouls called) to the Wildcats.
Instead of packing up for cross-country trip back home, however, the Orange had one more game to play against Louisville, which fell to UCLA 75-74 in an OT thriller in the semifinal nightcap. 1975 was the last year the NCAA staged regional third-place games, so if SU had not upset North Carolina, it would have faced Boston College in the East Region consolation game at Providence, instead beating the Tar Heels to face Kansas State.
It also marked the sixth-to-last season of contesting the national third-place game (ended in 1981), about as anti-climactic a setting as could be imagined. Louisville left its game on the floor in the overtime loss to eventual champion UCLA, making the consolation meeting with Syracuse truly meaningless except for Cardinal pride.
The contest, also not televised, showcased a valiant Orange team that shot poorly in the first half and came all the way back from a 17-point deficit to force overtime, but succumb to foul trouble and Junior Bridgeman’s 12 overtime points of his 21 for the game in a 96-88 defeat.
Lee, who had missed a chance to clinch a comeback against Louisville at the regulation buzzer, finished as the leading scorer in the entire tournament with 119 points, averaging 23.8 in the five Syracuse games.