Before there was “One Shining Moment,” March Madness, a Road to the Final Four and watch parties on Selection Sunday, there was the 1974 Pitt Panthers.
Forty-five years ago, there was not such hoopla about the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The media coverage was tempered and controlled, and a team in Southwestern Pennsylvania made up almost exclusively of kids who went to school and grew up playing basketball in the Pittsburgh area rose up and made history.
Those kids came together in the 1973-74 basketball season as members of Pitt’s basketball team. They were special, played a unique brand of basketball and reached uncommon heights for the Panthers.
Led by a generational player, Billy Knight, Pitt lost its first game before reeling off 22 consecutive victories.
These Panthers advanced to the NCAA tournament quarterfinals – known globally today as the Elite Eight.
The coach, Buzz Ridl, was understated, calm and always collected – the anti Tom Izzo.
His assistants, Fran Webster and Tim Grgurich, were strategists, basketball scientists, recruiters, motivators and persuaders.
It all worked for Pitt that season.
“We were born and raised to be leaders at that time,” said Keith Starr, one of the team’s top reserves, who grew up in Sewickley and played at Quaker Valley. “Because of all the success with the sports teams in Pittsburgh at the time, it was unique.”
“Because we all knew each other, it made it very special for all of us,” said Knight, who went on to star for the Indiana Pacers in the old ABA and played for a handful of NBA teams. “We’d have either played against one another in high school or in pickup games in Pittsburgh. Because of that, we were all friends before we even got to Pitt.
“Coach Ridl and Coaches Webster and Grgurich are the reasons we were all there. We had a special bond, an attachment. I knew all along I was going to Pitt.”
Tom Richards, Pitt’s point guard and sophomore in the 1973-74 season, said the pride each player had in Pittsburgh drove friendships, relationships, and the excellence of the season.
Knight grew up in Braddock. Richards played at Moon.
Richards believes the makeup of the team created a situation in which everyone contributed to make it better.
“There was a camaraderie driven by common experience,” Richards said. “We all had pride in Pittsburgh. It was a pretty unique part of our team’s success.”
Pitt has played in only three national quarterfinal games in its history – 1941, 1974 and 2009.
The 1941 team was one of eight teams to play in the national championship tournament. It advanced to the Final Four before losing. The ’74 and ’09 teams were eliminated in the Elite Eight. The loss in 2009 to Villanova, when Scottie Reynolds made his court-long dash and layup, remains the most stinging defeat in the modern era of Pitt basketball.
At the center of Pitt’s run in the 1973-74 season was Knight. He led the way, scoring 21.8 points per game, grabbing 13.4 rebounds per contest and averaging 2.6 assists.
Mickey Martin, from Baldwin, was an integral member of the starting lineup. He scored 12.2 points and averaged 4.7 assists per game while Richards scored 8.8 points and made 3.5 assists per game.
Starr was important off the bench, adding 7.8 points, four rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Kirk Bruce, from the South Hills, who later became Pitt’s women’s basketball coach and then an administrator at the university, averaged 7.9 points with 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists.
Lew Hill, a forward, scored 10.3 points and averaged 4.8 rebounds. Willie Kelly chipped in 4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Hill and Kelly were the only two of the top nine players who came from outside the Pittsburgh area.
Jim Bolla, a Bishop Canevin Catholic product, scored four points a game. Ken Wagoner from Beaver Falls also played an important role with the team.
Scott Nedrow, a Ringgold High School product, was a freshman on the squad.
Pitt lost its season opener at West Virginia. That, coupled with a 12-14 record one season before, cast some doubt on the Panthers.
However, nobody in the Pitt locker room was wondering about the team – with good reason.
The Panthers reeled off 22 consecutive victories. Pitt, which finished with a 25-4 record, was ranked as high as No. 7 in the country.
“It took us a couple years to formulate it all into success,” Martin said. “Then it just came to us. It was a system and, then boom, we became a good team.
“We just finally came together and everything seemed to all into place. The fans became more involved.”
The streak started with a win over Duquesne. It included a forfeit victory at Rutgers, Dec. 4, 1973, when students went onto the floor and staged a protest. They sat on the floor after the Panthers built a 36-21 lead. The game could not be continued.
The Pittsburgh kids had come together to become one of the country’s best teams.
“We played hard and we played together,” Knight said. “A lot of it was the amoeba defense we played – sometimes two guys playing man-to-man and the other three in zones. There were a lot of combinations. I know the opponents got confused sometimes. We were confused sometimes.
“Coach Ridl was an easy-going guy. He didn’t do a lot of hollering or yelling. He never screamed or cussed. He was respected because we knew he knew what he was doing. We liked him as a guy and respected him as a coach. We tried to play hard and together all the time.”
Bruce said the team began to believe in itself during the 1972-73 season.
“We lost in overtime at Notre Dame,” Bruce recalled. “It’s a game we should have won. They went on to snap UCLA’s long winning streak. We had a lot of games that season we could and should have won.
“It wasn’t like the (1973-74) team had a bunch of over achievers. We had a lot of guys who were really good basketball players. We had a lot of talent on our team.”
Knight was most special.
“Our run was predicated on Billy Knight,” Bruce said. “He was what set us apart. Every night we played, we had the best player on the floor. And I mean every game.”
Pitt’s 22-game winning streak ended at Penn State in a two-point defeat. The Panthers followed that with a loss to South Carolina. The Panthers concluded the regular season with a victory over WVU, avenging the season-opening defeat.
Richards said he thinks the team was told about its tournament invitation while in its locker room without any fanfare.
“There wasn’t any watch party,” Richards laughed. “I suspect we learned of it before a practice.”
Starr, who resides in Las Vegas, said the opportunity to play on the national stage was the culmination of an exciting and successful season.
“We had a really good basketball team,” he added. “We had four or five kids on the floor, most of the time, who could really shoot the ball. We weren’t very big. We had a common goal and we could spread the floor. We were hard to defend.”
The Panthers defeated St. Joseph’s in the first-round of the NCAA tournament and downed Furman in the Sweet 16.
They collided with North Carolina State in the Elite 8 and the game was played in Raleigh, on the Wolfpack’s home floor.
“They (NCAA) would never let that happen today,” Bruce chuckled. “But that’s how it was done then.”
Knight said it was “an incredible atmosphere” and a raucous crowd.
North Carolina State featured superstar David Thompson, who was a tremendous leaper and slam-dunk artist, 7-foot, 4-inch center Tom Burleson and small, sharp-shooting guard Monte Towe.
The game changed, incredibly, when Thompson sustained a head injury when he flipped over one of his teammates and landed hard on the court. He was taken from the floor with what looked to be serious head trauma.
He returned to the floor later in a wheelchair with his head wrapped in a white bandage.
The partisan crowd erupted upon his return as did the Wolfpack, who seized control and ended the Panthers’ season and national championship hopes. N.C. State went on to win the national championship.
“We wanted to represent Pittsburgh and wanted to put Pitt back on the basketball map,” Starr said. “The fanfare of big-time basketball was great. We felt it and we appreciated the great support we received.”
Knight said white making the tournament wasn’t an obsession or focal point, playing together and winning each game is what spurred the great season,
“I didn’t think about the tournament,” Knight said. “We were trying to win as many games as we could and certainly hoping to win enough to make the tournament. The media got more involved as we kept winning.”
Said Richards: “The winning streak created a certain amount of pressure. Sports Illustrated did a story on us. People talked about the amoeba defense, which was a little ahead of its time and confused people with its different slides.
“The coaches were great. Buzz was so under control, Fran was the architect of the amoeba and Tim was the motivator and recruiter. We would have run through a wall for those guys. We all remain connected today. It was an amazing experience.”
John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.