Whatever momentum Virginia Tech had from its opening victory it almost lost against little Fairfield, a surprise 80-76 victor over Marshall in its first game. " Fairfield's like us," said Lieder. "We're nobody and they're nobody, and that makes it a hard game for us. We lose mostly to cruddy teams."
And for a half that's just the way Virginia Tech played, as though it were going to lose to another nobody. "We gave up more easy points in the first 20 minutes than we gave up all year," said DeVoe. Down by nine at intermission, the Gobblers finally put enough of their game together to edge the gritty little Connecticut school 77-76. "We just don't play well against a team like that," said DeVoe. "We don't look good until we play somebody like an Alabama."
Enter Alabama, the new Southeastern Conference power that had shocked 10th-ranked Minnesota 69-65 with a second-half run of 16 straight points in the quarterfinals. " Virginia Tech? I don't know too much about them," said Leon Douglas, Alabama's 6'10" freshman center. "I watched part of their game with Fairfield but I kept falling asleep."
No one slept through the last 3:05 of the Gobblers' 74-73 upset of Alabama. Trailing by five at that point, Tech got two quick scores from Thomas, its defensive genius. One point down, and the Gobblers' cheerleaders were doing their version of the turkey trot. It would be hard to fault Alabama's Ray Odums for fouling under the circumstances. But he did, giving the ball to Tech, which gave it to Ed Frazier, who hit a jumper from the key. Then Bobby Stevens made a pair of free throws, and Virginia Tech led 74-71 with 14 seconds to play. Alabama cut that margin to one on an Odums jump shot. And there, with five seconds to play, Virginia Tech almost blew it to a somebody.
The, Gobblers had to bring the ball into play from under their basket. The ball came in but no one was there, and it went bouncing down the court. In pursuit went Lieder, who is known as Lead-foot. "To start the clock I had to touch it before it went out of bounds," he said. "I never ran so fast in my life." He caught up with the ball just as he was falling out of bounds in the far corner, and the clock ticked. The game ended before Alabama could bring the ball far enough upcourt to get off a shot.
"Us, Virginia Tech in the NIT final?" said Bristow. "I don't believe it."
"We had to win it," said Lieder. "The consolation game is at 11 a.m. and nobody wanted to get up that early."
For its semifinal Notre Dame caught North Carolina, the victor over Oral Roberts and Massachusetts, and so deep in talent that its coach, Dean Smith, orders in substitutes in waves. Against Massachusetts, for instance, Smith juggled his lineup 31 times, which can be confusing. To everyone. Against Massachusetts, Smith tried to substitute George Karl for George Karl.
For the first 20 minutes North Carolina hurled fresh body after fresh body at the Irish, and all this won the Tar Heels a nine-point lead with 2:33 to play. But Notre Dame's Pete Crotty picked up his third foul and Phelps replaced him with Willie Townsend, a split end for the football team. He contributed a basket to seven straight Irish points that cut the margin to 43-41 at the half.
Then Dwight Clay, a 5'11" sophomore guard who had only one field goal in the first half, decided he had better do something. "I knew I had to open things up," he said. "Coach looks to me to get movement in the game." He started with two quick jumpers, fed a pass to Townsend who scored, and then hit a long jumper. Notre Dame led by six and the freshness oozed from North Carolina. "I figured they were getting a little winded," said Clay. From there until the 78-71 end, the big excitement was when Notre Dame's John Shumate finally missed a shot. The 6'9" sophomore went 9 for 9 against Louisville, and hit on his first 11 against North Carolina. Going into Sunday's final, he was 28 for 32 from the floor in three games.