Jan. 9, 2010

by Pete Spiewak '10

The 1980-81 season was shaping up to be a memorable one for the Saint Joseph's Hawks, coached by Jim Lynam. St. Joe's was returning four of its five leading scorers - Boo Williams, Mike Morrow, Bryan Warrick and John Smith - from a season in which the team managed a 21-9 record and an appearance in the NIT.

In addition to that solid core, Lynam had reeled in one of the school's best recruiting classes of all time, which was headlined by local products Lonnie McFarlan and Tony Costner. McFarlan starred at Roman Catholic, while Costner played on Lancaster Avenue for Overbrook High School.

With McFarlan and Costner in tow, Lynam would take the Hawks on a magical ride by utilizing his "Four to Score" offense, which featured one player handling the ball, while his four teammates each stood in a corner, baiting the defense to come out to guard the players, only to have the Hawks blow by defenders and score. It was a slow-developing offense that took patience.

Confident in his team, Lynam put his Hawks to the test with a difficult non-conference schedule. In late December, Saint Joseph's, 6-0 heading into the game, was beaten by Michigan State, 71-67 in East Lansing, Michigan. Just two days later, the team would participate in the Maryland Invitational, beating Bowling Green, and then losing to #9 Maryland the next night, 74-57.

Later on in the season, Saint Joseph's would take on yet another dangerous team when they faced North Carolina, ranked 10th in the nation. The Tar Heels, who would reach the NCAA Finals that season, handed the Hawks a 23-point loss, 87-64.

Saint Joseph's still managed a 19-7 record during the regular season, but its challenging non-conference schedule would prove to be a benefit for the Hawks, preparing them for the postseason.

The Hawks went 9-2 in East Coast Conference play and were paired with city rival Temple in their first postseason game. In the two schools' first meeting of that season, Saint Joseph's edged Temple 61-58 at The Palestra. However, when the two teams met for a second time at Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse in the opening round of the East Coast Conference Tournament, it was one of the most memorable games ever in the Hawks' home gym. Without star player and leading scorer Warrick, who was sitting out with an injury, the Hawks managed a 60-55 victory to advance to the semi-finals.

After a 12-point victory over Lafayette in the semi-finals, Lynam's team edged American, 63-60, in the conference championship, and was headed for the NCAA Tournament.

In the opening round of the tournament, ninth-seeded Saint Joseph's knocked out fellow Jesuit school Creighton, the number eight seed, with a 59-57 win. With a win in their first game, the Hawks were gearing up for a showdown with number one seed DePaul, the nation's top team. The Blue Demons had been waiting on the winner of the Hawks' game with Creighton, since prior to 1985, the NCAA Tournament field was made up of 48 teams, with the top four seeds in each region getting first-round byes.

With the teams meeting in Dayton, Ohio, what would occur in the second round game would go down as one of the greatest NCAA Tournament upsets and one of Saint Joseph's greatest triumphs ever.

On paper, the Blue Demons should have easily rolled right past the Hawks and into the Sweet Sixteen. National Player of the Year Mark Aguirre and future NBA Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star Terry Cummings made the Chicago school a real threat to take home the national championship.

However, Lynam and the Hawks managed to frustrate the Blue Demons from the opening tip, using the "four to score" offensive strategy to slow the game down, keeping it a low-scoring game. DePaul would have preferred to play more of an up-and-down game, but the Hawks controlled the tempo and kept the game in the half-court setting. Saint Joseph's was able to neutralize Aguirre, holding the All-American to just eight points on six shots and one rebound.

Still, with just over 11 minutes remaining, DePaul seemed to be in good position to avoid the upset. The Blue Demons led by seven, 42-35, when the momentum shifted to the Hawks. DePaul point guard Clyde Bradshaw was benched after picking up his fourth foul, leaving head coach Ray Meyer's team without their floor general.

As the game was winding down, Saint Joseph's fought its way back into the game. Up just three, at 48-45, DePaul tried to stall, but Lynam's team would take advantage of any opportunity it would get down the stretch.

Smith, SJU's 6'5 senior, would win a key jump ball over 6'8 Teddy Grubbs of DePaul, which led to a Warrick jumper that cut the deficit to just one, 48-47, with 48 seconds remaining.

With 13 seconds left, a Saint Joseph's foul sent Skip Dillard, who was nicknamed "Money" by his teammates for his ability to knock down free throws, to the line for a one-and-one. Dillard was shooting 85% from the stripe.

Dillard uncharacteristically missed the front end of the one-and-one, which was rebounded by Warrick. Instead of calling a timeout to set up a play, Lynam let his Hawks run the court. Warrick brought the ball up the floor and found McFarlan in the corner, who rose up, appearing to be taking a long jumper and drawing two defenders, before passing in mid-air to Smith, who was wide open underneath the hoop, to make the easy lay-up with time expiring, completing the unimaginable upset: 49-48, Hawks.

Saint Joseph's - no stranger to close games - would barely get by Boston College, 42-41, in the Sweet Sixteen, before bowing out to eventual national champion Indiana, led by guard Isiah Thomas and head coach Bob Knight.

Smith would later say that the final play of the DePaul game was an ordinary "Fourth and Shunk" play - referring to the South Philadelphia playground that he frequented as a child.

A shocked Aguirre stormed out of the arena that night, walking home to the team's hotel in Dayton. Some say that DePaul has never been the same since that game 29 years ago.

Saint Joseph's fans will likely tell you the same; finishing with 25 wins, and as one of the final eight teams competing for a national championship that season, the 1980-81 Hawks are still celebrated as one of the greatest teams ever on Hawk Hill, and that upset over DePaul changed the program forever.