Jan. 24, 2006
By Brian W. Ferrie '98 - It was 25 years ago that the 1980-81 Saint Joseph's basketball team put together one of the most successful seasons in school history, highlighted by one of the most memorable wins -- a 49-48 buzzer-beating victory over #1 DePaul, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Overall, that SJU team compiled a 25-8 record, reaching the Elite Eight before falling to eventual national champion Indiana on the Hoosiers' home court in the Mideast Regional final.
Going into the 1980-81 season, expectations for the Hawks were justifiably high. The 1979-80 team had put together a 21-9 record while registering an undefeated 4-0 mark in the Big 5. The 1980-81 team returned talented senior forwards Boo Williams and John Smith, as well as quick junior guard Bryan Warrick. That nucleus was augmented by the addition of high-profile freshmen Tony Costner and Lonnie McFarlan.
Saint Joseph's Hall of Famer Jim Lynam, who was in his third and final year as the Hawks' coach, remembered his thoughts on the team going into that season.
"I knew we had the potential to be a good team," he said. "But we also had two freshmen who were going to start. They were both very good players, highly recruited, high school All-Americans, but you never know how freshmen are going to adjust."
It turns out that both adjusted very well. McFarlan averaged 7.1 points and 2.5 rebounds as a frosh that season, while Costner put up 10.0 points per game and 6.8 rebounds while blocking a team-high 35 shots. Combined with the strong play of Warrick (13.5 points), Smith (10.8 points) and Williams (12.4 points, 6.6 rebounds), as well as the contributions of guard Jeffery Clark (team-high 112 assists and 77 steals) to name a few, the Hawks won their first six games in surging to a 14-2 record out of the gate. The team then split its next 10 games, for a 19-7 overall mark going into the East Coast Conference Tournament.
The Hawks' 9-2 record in the conference tied them for second place. But Saint Joseph's entered that ECC Tournament on a down note, having dropped consecutive games to conference foe American (84-83 heartbreaker at the Palestra in overtime) and archrival Villanova (72-62 at the Palestra). In the face of that disappointment, the Hawks showed their mettle, storming through the conference tournament. An opening-round 60-55 victory over Temple was followed by 73-63 win versus Lafayette and then a 63-60 win over American to claim the conference tourney crown.
Saint Joseph's performance earned the Hawks an NCAA Tournament invitation as a #9 seed, and a first-round matchup with #8 seed Creighton in Dayton. The Hawks pulled out a 59-57 nail-biter over the Blue Jays as Smith scored 20 points, Costner pulled down 11 rebounds and Warrick registered six assists. Thus the stage was set for the second-round matchup with national powerhouse DePaul.
"They were the number one team in the country and had played extremely well all year," remembered Lynam. "They won a lot of close games, including one in the city over La Salle."
Those same Explorers barely beat the Hawks, 58-56, in a Jan. 31 contest.
"Most of our players had seen that La Salle-De Paul game live," continued Lynam. "And then we watched the tape of it the night before our game against DePaul. So our mindset was that DePaul was a very good team, but not beyond our reach."
Their mindset proved right. In an outcome that stunned the Blue Demons and the nation, the Hawks claimed a thrilling 49-48 victory on a buzzer-beating layup by Smith. Many Hawks fans today can clearly remember Smith's postgame comment that it was simply a "Fourth and Shunk" shot, the same kind he had made countless times on the Philly playground where he grew up playing ball.
What is not always remembered is how the Hawks followed up their DePaul success by pulling out another close one in the Mideast Regional semifinal at Bloomington, Indiana. In beating #5 seed Boston College, 42-41, the team reaffirmed its steel nerves. Amazingly, that win gave these fearless Hawks three NCAA Tournament victories over higher-seeded opponents by a combined four points.
Alas, the team's Final Four dreams were not to be realized. Indiana, led by future NBA star Isaiah Thomas, dominated play against the Hawks in the Mideast Regional final, handing St. Joe's a 78-46 loss and stopping them just one game short of becoming the second team in school history to reach the Final Four (achieved by the 1961 squad).
As disappointing an end to the season as it may have been, however, one lopsided defeat could not lessen what these Hawks had accomplished, nor mar their cherished place in Saint Joseph's history.
When asked what qualities made that team so special and capable of such great accomplishments, Lynam said, "Outstanding people who were also very good players."
Of the transcendent victory over DePaul, he offered a few words as well.
"It was many lifetimes ago," concluded Lynam, who has since walked the sidelines as a head coach for 720 NBA games with the Los Angeles Clippers, Washington Bullets/Wizards and hometown 76ers. "But that DePaul game was a special event for a lot of people and the whole school. The players and coaches enjoyed it and kept it in perspective. Because it meant so much to so many people, it was just great to be a part of it."