Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

30 Years Ago: The Birth of March Madness

Posted on March 13, 2011 by A.J. Foss
Lonnie McFarlan passes to John Smith for layup that would shock top seeded DePaul.

Lonnie McFarlan passes to John Smith for layup that shocks top-seeded DePaul.

The NCAA Basketball tournament began with the 1979 national championship game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Indiana State Sycamores, featuring Magic Johnson for the Spartans and Larry Bird for the Sycamores.

But the madness really began on March 14, 1981, when the top two ranked teams in the country and the defending national champions were all knocked off in buzzer beater losses.

All in the same afternoon.

The action began in Austin, Texas when the defending national champion Louisville Cardinals faced off with the Arkansas Razorbacks.

The game was close throughout but it appeared the Cardinals would advance to the Sweet 16 after guard Derek Smith hit the go-ahead basket to give Louisville a 73-72 lead with five seconds left.

Arkansas called timeout after the basket but chances were remote for a win as the Razorbacks had to take the ball from under the Louisville basket.

Arkansas inbounded the ball to guard U.S. Reed, who dribbled the ball to midcourt and launched a shot from 49 feet out.

But miraculously the ball went through the net as the buzzer for a game-winning basket to give the Razorbacks a 74-73 win (the basket was only two points since there was no three-point line in 1981) and ending the Cardinals’ quest to defend their championship.

If the ending of the game wasn’t shocking enough, the outcome of the West regional second round match-up between top seed and #2 nationally ranked Oregon State, and eighth-seeded Kansas State would also surprise fans throughout the country.

Future NBA star Rolando Blackman contributed to the madness as Kansas State upset top seed Oregon State.

The Beavers were in control as they held 42-32 lead midway through the second half before the Wildcats went on a 16-6 run, tying the game at 48-48 with 3: 23 to play.

The score remained that way until Charlie Sitton went to the foul line with 11 seconds left and a chance to give Oregon State the lead.

But Sitton missed the front end of a one-and-one and the ball went to Kansas State, who turned to guard Rolando Blackman who proceeded to make a 17-foot jumper with two seconds left which gave the Wildcats a 50-48 win and knocked the #2 ranked Beavers out of the tournament.

But perhaps the biggest shocker of the day was yet to come as the #1 ranked team in the country, DePaul, would go down as well.

DePaul entered the tournament as the #1 team on a team that featured all-American forward Mark Aguirre and future NBA all-star Terry Cummings.

Since the field had 48 teams in 1981 and they were a top-four seed, the Blue Demons earned a first round bye and began their tournament in the second round against St. Joseph’s, who had slipped past Creighton 59-57 in the first round, for the school’s first tournament win in 15 years.

DePaul appeared to be in command as they lead 42-35 with 11:15 remaining in the game, but the momentum of the game toward St. Joseph’s favor when DePaul point guard Clyde Bradshaw picked up his fourth foul and had to go to the bench.

The Hawks were able to cut the lead to one point at 48-47 when DePaul’s Skip Dillard, nicknamed “Money” because of his 85% free throw shooting, went to the foul line with 13 seconds left with a one-and-one.

But Dillard missed the first free throw which was rebounded by Hawks guard Bryan Warrick, who brought the ball up the floor and then passed it to freshman Lonnie McFarlan, who was wide open in the right corner.

McFarlan appeared to be setting up for a jump shot, which drew two DePaul defenders, but at the last moment he passed it to forward John Smith, who was wide open under the basket, and made the lay-up as time expired to give St. Joseph’s a shocking 49-48 victory, setting off a wild celebration that lead to the famous image of St. Joseph’s head coach Jim Lynam and his daughter, Denise.

The fall of DePaul was the cap on the craziest day in NCAA tournament history.

And March Madness was truly born.

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