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The first rule of any 16-team tournament is that you must begin with 16 teams. And so, early in their selections, the NIT people posted invitations to Notre Dame and to Virginia Tech, and then they got serious. For sure, there were other soft touches. With the NCAA sweeping up conference champions plus the best of the independents, not too much remained. But this year the NIT emerged with some legitimate muscle in Minnesota and Alabama and North Carolina, and there were those who wept for the Irish and the, ah, Gobblers. For goodness sakes, the Gobblers?
The experts sourly scanned Notre Dame's record (15-11), its starting lineup (four sophomores, one junior) and its bench (a split end), and decided the Irish would be a 2-to-1 underdog against a forfeit. As one wit said, "The Notre Dames draw a bye and lose by five." None of the levity was lost on Digger Phelps, the effervescent 31-year-old who still finds it hard to believe that he is really coaching at Notre Dame.
"We played the toughest schedule in the country," said Phelps, who didn't care for the suggestion that Notre Dame was in only as a temporary hype to the gate at Madison Square Garden. NIT officials were equally offended, adding that it was only by mere chance that the Irish would play their first game on St. Patrick's Day. But Phelps' argument was sound. Notre Dame played a schedule that looked as though it might have been drawn up by Ian Paisley. In their first seven games the Irish lost to Michigan, Ohio State, St. Louis, Indiana, UCLA and Kentucky. After that, a guillotine would have looked like a breather. But by now Phelps had settled on his ironman offense, and the inexhaustible youngsters chewed up 14 opponents, including Marquette, St. John's and South Carolina, which did not exactly make them look like a pickup team from the South Bend YMCA.
The selection of Virginia Tech mystified even Virginia Tech, which had blown a possible NCAA at-large bid by losing to a couple of powerhouses named Richmond and Toledo. Still, the Gobblers had beaten Ohio State, South Carolina and Florida State while winning 18 of 23 and confounding the critics in the state who had said, "The Gobblers are too small, too white and too Virginian." Tech did have great cheerleaders, it was duly noted, all of them bearing some resemblance to Raquel Welch. Well, that wouldn't hurt the gate any, either. "I don't think we'll win a game," said Allan Bristow, the 6'7" center who had just two scholarship offers while in high school, both for swimming. (He says Virginia Tech finally took him as a basketball player because a scout liked the way he dribbled.) "If we win one game," said Craig Lieder, a junior forward, "we can stay in New York a week."
On that note, the tournament began. "Can you imagine?" said Bob Boyd, the USC coach, "the Pac-8 finally gets a team in the NIT and we draw Notre Dame on St. Patrick's Day. Maybe we shouldn't show up." Later, Boyd wished he hadn't. The Trojans had 28 fouls called against them, Notre Dame but 10. USC made 32 field goals but just one free throw. Notre Dame made 23 field goals, 23 free throws—and won 69-65. Boyd set an NIT chair-drop-kicked-into-stands record of one.
The next day the Virginia Tech cheerleaders showed up in orange knee-length high-heel boots, supertight body shirts and white hot pants.
"I've just become a Gobbler fan," said 3,462 non-Virginia spectators.
By the time the team took the floor, the Garden crowd was almost all pro-Gobbler. Perhaps inspired by the unexpected support, underdog Virginia Tech responded with a 65-63 upset of New Mexico, the clincher coming on a basket by Charlie Thomas with 33 seconds to play. "It's a good team," said Tech Coach Don DeVoe, "even though none of our players were All-Americas in high school."
In the quarterfinals Notre Dame played favored Louisville even for a half, then dropped into a man-to-man defense and ran off with a 79-71 victory. With one second to play, Gary Brokaw fouled out and was replaced by Don Silinski. That was the Irish's only substitution.
"Going a full game was hard for me at first," said Brokaw, a 6'3" sophomore guard. "The secret is pacing yourself. That's a lot more important part of the game than people think. There was a point in December when I'd get so I could hardly move around in a game. But it doesn't bother me now. It's harder to keep your momentum when you keep changing lineups."