Al McGuire's stunning triumph and tearful goodby at the NCAA basketball finals in Atlanta showed that he is more than a street-corner aphorist, a barroom philosopher, a guy who makes his own and singular way. The soul of the man is this: he is a winner—last Monday night, today, forever. Seashells and balloons, Al.
To the end McGuire entertained and enthralled us, indulging in the bizarre behavior that has characterized him and his teams for 20 years. But when it came time to finish his career, there he was on the sidelines, his back straight, calling out the plays on a rainy night in Georgia when Marquette outplayed and outhustled North Carolina 67-59.
After announcing his retirement midway through his 13th year at Marquette, McGuire took to ridiculing the involvement of grown men in a game, perhaps obscuring his true feelings. But eight seconds from the finish, when the meaning of his first and last NCAA championship swept over him, he began to sob on the bench, left the court alone and paced in the empty locker room, a towel to his eyes. "I want to be alone," he said. "I'm not afraid to cry."
As always he dominated the scene. "When you think of Marquette, you think of Al," Guard Butch Lee said Monday afternoon while McGuire raced around on his motorcycle. That night, he and his players arrived at the Omni only 45 minutes before the tipoff, barely enough time to dress. Early in the game he kicked the scorer's table so hard he limped all night. Minutes into the second half, as North Carolina, led by Mike O'Koren, who scored the first four baskets, roared back from a 39-27 deficit and McGuire ranted on the sideline, his wife Pat stood in the stands, pleading for him to sit down.
But Al McGuire was not going to blow this one. North Carolina edged on top 45-43 with 13:48 left and a short time later went to its vaunted four corners offense, a tactic McGuire had anticipated and which came to naught. The Warriors sagged underneath to take away the back-door play and, directed by Lee, who scored 19 points and was named the game's outstanding player, were patient on offense. Over the next 12 minutes, thanks in part to its own slowdown tactics, the Tar Heels scored only four points.
Once it had regained the lead with a little more than six minutes to go, Marquette taunted North Carolina with its delay game, and hit on 16 of 17 free throws while the Tar Heels fumbled away the ball and missed the open shots.
There was one last uneasy moment for Marquette. With the Warriors leading 53-49 with less than two minutes left, Bernard Toone was accidentally poked in the eye by O'Koren. When Toone reacted angrily and elbowed O'Koren, the officials gave Toone one free throw for O'Koren's foul, which he missed. But the officials further ruled that Toone had committed a technical foul—two free throws—which Walter Davis took and made. Now it was 53-51 Marquette and a jump ball. But Marquette won the tip, North Carolina started fouling and McGuire's ultimate victory was secure.
It was perhaps inevitable that the final game did not match either semifinal in intensity or excitement. The total margin of victory in Saturday's games, three points, was the closest in NCAA history. McGuire had expressed his concern about North Carolina-Charlotte when he said to its coach, Lee Rose, "There are 100 schools in the country with names like yours and I can beat them all. But I'm not sure I can beat yours."
Yet in the opening minutes Marquette seemed ready not only to beat Charlotte but also to humiliate it. The jittery 49ers had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (three) and trailed 23-9 with less than seven minutes remaining in the half.
But Marquette, which had played fitfully much of this season—one reason it had the worst record (23-7) of the final four—was not able to put the 49ers away. With Rose whistling encouragement from the bench and Cornbread Maxwell blocking shots and starting to score, Charlotte rallied to trail only 25-22 at intermission.