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Marquette-UNC stirs memories of '77 classic

Seconds after Darius Johnson-Odom buried a three-pointer that helped propel Marquette past Syracuse University last Sunday, Bo Ellis received the first of hundreds of text messages.

The first one simply read: "Rematch."

"I just laughed," Ellis said. "That was almost 35 years ago."

Ellis was a key member of Marquette's 1977 national title team, the one that sent Al McGuire into retirement a champion, by defeating Dean Smith and North Carolina. Tonight, for the first time since that magical night in Atlanta, the two programs meet again in the NCAAs.

"Times are changing and it should be interesting," Ellis said. "But it's going to bring back some memories."

At first, Ellis was reluctant to rehash old times. His perspective on life and basketball has changed since he lost his daughter, Nicole, to a rare liver illness in 2003. While he's still fond of Marquette and attends several home games, the regimes have changed so much over the years that the family bond that was once so prevalent within the program isn't as strong. The death late last year of Hank Raymonds, who was McGuire's assistant and successor, takes even more of the edge from tonight's game for Ellis.

"He would be the one who would be really fired up about this whole thing," he said. "This would really be important for him."

Butch Lee, Ellis' former teammate and the '77 Final Four's Most Outstanding Player, told him he was flying here from Puerto Rico with his youngest son for the experience. Ellis, now a scout with the Milwaukee Bucks, is scouting D-League games and can't make it. His time, he says, has passed.

"Coach McGuire used to always say, 'It's these kids' time now,' " said Ellis, 56. "I'm just an old pawn on the chess board."

Finally, without much prodding, the old pawn warms up.

"It's going to be tough for them but North Carolina is struggling a little bit," Ellis said. "North Carolina might have a little too much inside and athleticism. But this is the NCAA Tournament and they were favored to beat us in '77, too, so anything can happen."

Indeed, Marquette had a better team in 1976 when they were 28-2 and ranked No. 2 in the country for most of the season behind Indiana. The Warriors, as Marquette was known then, lost to the eventual champion Hoosiers in the Mideast Region final.

"The No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country played for a chance to get to the Final Four," Ellis said. "They would never let that happen now. They would have placed us in different regions."

The '77 tournament was the last where teams were not seeded and Marquette had seven losses coming in.

"At the time, the seven losses were the most of any national champion," Ellis said. "Marquette already has 14 losses. You can see how times have changed and the game is different."

The Warriors' preparation for the Tar Heels centered on Smith's renowned four corner offense. When Smith got off the bench, adjusted his pants by the waist and put up four fingers, "that's all she wrote," McGuire told his team.

"We acted like we were coming out in man and then slipped back in a zone and it kind of confused them," Ellis said. "We were Mickey Mousing them with the zone and man to man."

North Carolina went ahead 45-43 with 13:48 remaining and Smith went with the four corners. But the Warriors sagged the lane to prevent the backdoor play and McGuire turned the tables on Smith by telling his team to be patient on offense. The slowdown method worked and Carolina scored just four points over the final 12 minutes. A dreadful free-throwing shooting team for much of that season, the Warriors converted 23 of 25 from the line.

"Someone tried to get to the basket and I blocked the shot. Then we went on a run," said Ellis, who had 14 points and nine rebounds that evening. "We weren't going to let them back in the game after that. We never allowed them to get back in the four corners."

Marquette has reached the Final Four only once since, back in 2003 with Dwyane Wade. The old pawn figures the loss still stings on Tobacco Road.

"I'm sure North Carolina won't forget what happened, especially the fans," Ellis said. "I still think Marquette has a chance, you never know."

That would give the old pawn reason to smile.

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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