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The NIT championship team returned to Virginia Tech for a 40th anniversary reunion last weekend.
DAVE KNACHEL | Virginia Tech
Former Virginia Tech assistant coaches Jim Hallihan (from left) and Sonny Smith catch up with former players Bobby Stevens and Dave Sensibaugh.
The Roanoke Times | File 1973
Virginia Tech and Notre Dame players watch Bobby Stevens’ shot go through the nets to give the Hokies the 1973 NIT championship.
Courtesy of the New York Daily News
Bobby Stevens (far right) makes the winning shot in Virginia Tech’s win over Notre Dame in 1973.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
BLACKSBURG — It was a victory that has resonated for 40 years.
Players and coaches from Virginia Tech’s 1973 NIT men’s basketball championship team returned to campus for a 40-year reunion last weekend, reliving the time when they helped the Hokies win a national tournament.
“It is the memory,” ex-Hokies star Allan Bristow, a former NBA player, coach and general manager, said in an interview Friday while catching up with old friends at Cassell Coliseum. “Even playing 10 years as a pro and even coaching for 15 years, … it’s a big, huge, monumental chapter in your life.
“It was a championship. I didn’t win any championships in the NBA.”
The championship was capped with one of the most memorable shots in Tech history — a Bobby Stevens buzzer-beater that gave the Hokies a 92-91 overtime win at Madison Square Garden.
“It doesn’t feel like we ever left campus,” said Stevens, 62, a former point guard who is now a high school teacher and college basketball commentator living in Rock Hill, S.C.
The NIT was still a prestigious tournament in 1973 because the NCAA tournament field had only 25 teams at that time — including just one squad per conference. So the 36th annual National Invitation Tournament had a strong 16-team field, including national heavyweights North Carolina and Minnesota.
Tech, an independent, received an NIT bid with an 18-5 record. Bristow said he often thinks about how Tech might have fared had it landed an NCAA berth.
The entire NIT was held at Madison Square Garden, so the Hokies got to spend more than a week in New York City. They won their four NIT games by a total of five points.
“The city of New York accepted those guys — a short team that wasn’t big enough to be there and in some ways not athletic enough to win it,” said Sonny Smith, an assistant coach on that team who went on to become the head coach at VCU and Auburn.
The Hokies beat New Mexico (65-63), Fairfield (77-76), Alabama (74-73) and the Fighting Irish to finish 22-5.
“We didn’t think we were going to be up there but for the weekend. We didn’t pack enough clothes,” said Bristow, 62, who is retired and lives in Marco Island, Fla. “We were on a good roll. Everything seemed to click.
“All the pieces fit.”
The Hokies loved playing at Madison Square Garden, the home of the New York Knicks.
“We’d go to practice and as we’re walking onto the floor, here comes Willis Reed and ‘Clyde’ Frazier and you’re just in awe,” Stevens said.
The Hokies’ coach was Don DeVoe, who went 88-45 in five seasons at Tech before becoming the coach at Wyoming, Tennessee, Florida and Navy.
“Don was such a great defensive coach,” said Smith, 76, a college basketball commentator who lives in Auburn, Ala. “He made everybody play hard.”
“We had … coaches that pushed us beyond what we thought we were capable of,” Stevens said.
The senior star of that Virginia Tech team was Bristow, a 6-foot-7 center. He had the most points in Tech history (1,804) when he concluded his college career. He now ranks seventh in Tech history in career points and fifth in career rebounds (987). He averaged a school-record 23.1 points in his Tech career.
“He was the best passer and shooter I ever coached,” said DeVoe, 71, an Annapolis, Md., resident who serves on the NIT selection committee.
The starting lineup also included Stevens, Craig Lieder, Ed Frazier and Charlie Thomas. All five starters were Virginia natives. Stevens and Thomas transferred from Ferrum Junior College.
In his 1973 article about the title game, Bill Cate of The Roanoke Times called the nationally televised win “the most important victory in the history of Tech athletics.” It was also referred to in the newspaper as “one of the greatest sports victories in the history of the commonwealth.”
The Hokies trailed Notre Dame 70-58 with seven minutes left in the second half. But Lieder sank a 20-footer with two seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
With five seconds left in OT, Stevens missed a shot. When the ball bounced back out, Stevens grabbed it and made about a 23-footer to win the game.
“He had to arc it,” Bristow said. “I never thought it would come down.
“It was one heck of a shot. It was a heck of a feeling.”
Notre Dame finished 18-12. The following season, the Irish ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.
Bristow had 24 points and 15 rebounds in the final. Lieder had 27 points and Stevens 17.
The voting for tournament most valuable player was done before the game ended. The award went to Notre Dame’s John Shumate, not Bristow.
But the Hokies got the trophy they wanted — the championship trophy.
“No matter how many championships they ever win, the 1973 team here will be the first to have ever won a national title in basketball,” Stevens said. “The first is always important.”
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