Looking back on UNC Charlotte’s Final Four run, 45 years later

The 49ers defeated Central Michigan, Syracuse and Michigan en route to the 1977 Final Four.
Published: Apr. 4, 2022 at 4:14 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Before the Carolina Panthers showed up at two Super Bowls, and prior to the Charlotte Hornets succeeding in the NBA, or even the newest MLS expansion franchise taking to the field, sports fans in the Queen City pinned their hopes and aspirations on the fortunes of a local college basketball team.

According to basketball great Cedric Cornbread Maxwell, the name behind an attractive game in town was the UNCC 49ers.

“We were the Panthers man, before the Panthers got here, we were the biggest game in town,” Maxwell said. “You think about Charlotte at that time, we made a run that propelled this city to think more about not being this regional city.

While the 1977 matchup against Marquette in the NCAA semi-finals fuels a flood gate of thoughts, embracing such a journey requires comprehending meaningful victories from the year before.

Under the respected leadership of head coach Lee Rose, his former assistant Mike Pratt holds onto the memories connected to the 1976 National Invitational Tournament run that took the 49ers to Madison Square Garden and the finals against Kentucky.

Pratt told WBTV,” You know, the year before we got pushed to the NIT because they said we didn’t play anybody. Well, we got to the finals of that.”

While Maxwell was billed as the face and star of the team, his strong supporting cast included Lou Massey and Melvin Watkins who like Pratt eventually became the 49ers head coach.

“No one expected us to go to the final four in New York, in the nit, when it was a 16 team tournament, " Pratt said.

Despite losing to UK in the final game, crowds turned out for a ticker-tape parade uptown, and in many ways the success of the ‘76 season offered a preview of what was to come.

The fire was ignited that next season following a critical win against the University of Michigan which catapulted the 49ers into college basketball’s promise land better known as the final four against Marquette University.

In the sea of fans wearing their Green and White at the Omni in Atlanta was Betty Chafin Rash at the time she served as a member of the Charlotte City Council.

“We were just absolutely giddy with excitement”, she said.”It was electric. It was absolutely electric. Of course, we were all decked out in our green and, you know, we were just, we were cheering.

Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot had selfish motives for a UNCC win. It meant taking on his beloved UNC Tar Heels in the championship game.

A decade earlier, Vinroot played for the iconic Carolina coach Dean Smith.

“It would’ve been, one of the games for the ages. I mean, how would we have handled it?” Vinroot asks.

A last-second play ended the game and season for the 49ers.

“It was so many connections where guys played at Carolina and then played at Charlotte. So it would’ve been a wonderful game, " Maxwell said.

Final score: Marquette 51 and UNCC 49.

While the 1977 tournament run demonstrated the possible, decades later they’re still called a Cinderella team.

“We were certainly a Cinderella team,” Mike Pratt said. “Absolutely. But that was the beauty of it.”

Despite defeat, Maxwell 45 years later feels the success of his college teams from Charlotte’s past left a lasting impact on a changing and growing community.

You think about Charlotte at that time, we made a run that propelled this city to think more about not being this regional city, but a national city, " Maxwell said.

“So that’s what happened. We were at UNC Charlotte and going to the final four, and we made people proud of this city.”

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