- The Washington Times - Monday, March 6, 2006

“They should fit the whole Virginia basketball team with glass slippers. And Wally Walker should at least get to marry the princess.”

Howard Ward, Charlotte Observer, March 1976

Purple prose? Sure. But Ward and a lot of other media people were entitled. What the Virginia Cavaliers accomplished at Landover’s Capital Centre 30 years ago today remains the most astonishing feat in more than half a century of ACC basketball.

People such as Ward could and did call it a fairy tale, except this one was real. On three consecutive nights, sixth-seeded Virginia upset three nationally ranked powers: Norm Sloan’s N.C. State Wolfpack, Lefty Driesell’s Maryland Terrapins and Dean Smith’s North Carolina Tar Heels to win their only ACC tournament championship.

This was the stuff of legend, and it didn’t matter much that the Cavaliers subsequently lost to DePaul in the first round of the NCAA East Regional in Charlotte. To a lot of folks along Tobacco Road, the ACC tournament meant more than the NCAAs anyway at a time when only two conference schools made the 32-team March Madness field.

And surely it was a happy coincidence that Virginia’s title came in the first ACC tournament held outside North Carolina. Or was it?

“The fact that it was not far from Laurel, where I grew up, made it really special for me,” recalled Billy Langloh, a junior guard who assured the 67-62 title-game win over North Carolina by sinking five of six free throws in the final 34 seconds. “A lot of former [Virginia] players will be in Charlottesville for the last game at University Hall [yesterday], and I’m sure there will be a lot of memories and emotion.”

Langloh, now an assistant coach at West Springfield High School and a regional scout for the Seattle SuperSonics, is one of several players on that team who have remained involved with basketball. Center Marc Iavaroni is an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns. Star forward Wally Walker, the tournament MVP, is the Sonics’ CEO.

Walker was positively otherwordly that long-ago weekend in Prince George’s County. He made 28 of 41 shots from the floor, played tough defense and led the team in rebounding. In so doing, he more than lived up to his nickname: “Wally Wonderful.”

“Do people still call you that?” a man asked Walker recently.

Wally laughed. “Not so much anymore. But this time of year, I get calls from people about that tournament. They’re a pleasant reminder, and I feel privileged to have been a part of it.”

Terry Holland, then 33 and in the second season of a 16-year coaching run at Virginia that produced 326 victories, nine NCAA tournament appearances and two trips to the Final Four, has insisted ever since that the Cavaliers’ 1976 title was no fluke despite an ordinary 15-11 regular-season record.

“We really felt we had a chance to win the tournament,” said Holland, now athletic director at East Carolina. “We thought Maryland was our toughest opponent because they had those three good guards [John Lucas, Brad Davis and Steve Sheppard]. I thought if we could control the tempo and get down the floor to play defense, we had as good a chance as anybody.”

Walker scored 25 points to lead the Cavaliers past N.C. State 75-63 in the first round. The next night, Virginia got 27 points from Walker and 20 from Langloh in a stunning 73-65 upset of 22-5 Maryland. In that one, Wally provided a microcosm of what was happening when he was knocked down in the second half and carelessly flipped the ball skyward while on his back. Of course, it went in the basket.

The unexpected result left Driesell fuming over the loss to Holland, who played for him at Davidson.

“I must be stupid or something,” the volatile Lefthander said. “I’ll never play three guards again. I stunk as a coach, we stunk as a team and Virginia made us stink.”

Walker didn’t consider the victory an upset but added: “We’ve got North Carolina in the final. Now that would be an upset.”

And so the Cavaliers went about it. Displaying great poise despite their weariness, the Cavaliers used their customary deliberate offense to trump a powerful Tar Heels team that included such stars as Phil Ford, Mitch Kupchak and Walter Davis. With the score tied 60-60 with four minutes left, North Carolina went into its signature four corners — there was no shot clock then — that frustrated most foes. But Virginia handled that, too.

In the Washington Star, Steve Guback described the Cavaliers’ five-point victory this way: “Even Thomas Jefferson, the venerated founder of the school 157 years ago, would have had a hard time believing how his gritty Cavaliers did it.”

With the nets draped around his neck afterward, Walker bubbled: “It’s incredible! [Several players] had made plans to go to Florida next week for spring vacation, but we’ll gladly change that.”

As it turned out, they might as well have gone. The Cavaliers suffered a big psychological letdown after the ACC euphoria, Walker battled a bad cold all week and Ray Meyer’s DePaul Blue Demons ended this particular Cinderella story with a 69-60 win.

Nor was the immediate future bright. With Walker gone to the NBA, Virginia struggled through a 12-17 season in 1976-77 … before starting a string of highly successful seasons before and during the Ralph Sampson era. But the Cavaliers have never recaptured the ACC tournament magic of that one marvelous spring.

“That’s the most remarkable thing — that we haven’t won it since,” Langloh said. “But we sure had our 15 minutes of fame.”

Iavaroni, for one, can’t believe it all happened 30 years ago.

“It’s like a previous life,” he insisted. “I’ve coached in the NBA for nine years now, but it’s very moving whenever I watch the highlight film — the emotion, the music, I’m hugging my high school sweetheart, and it was all so magical. It’s still inside me, but it’s such a remote part.”

Said Walker: “It does all seem a little bit like a dream.”

Holland, the coach who masterminded the miracle, put it this way: “Looking back, it seems even more amazing now than then. It was pretty spectacular. Until then, we had proven we could compete with the top ACC teams but not that we could beat them.”

It has been 16 years now since Holland stalked a coaching sideline. Does he miss it?

“Yeah — at ACC tournament time.”

No wonder.

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