A major upset
By Tom Mattingly
Several weeks ago, I received a phone call from a gentleman named Bobby Travillian. He was calling from Paris, the one in Henry County in West Tennessee. Bobby is one of those “super fan” types who seem to possess a treasure trove of Tennessee sports memorabilia.
He asked if I would autograph a couple of my books, and I quickly agreed. He also asked if he could do anything in exchange. I had been looking for a tape of the 1969 Tennessee-South Carolina basketball game, played on Dec. 6 in Columbia, S.C. I remembered listening to the game many years ago but had never seen a game tape.
He quickly agreed, and a week or so later a flash drive (12-06-1969 Tennessee South Carolina.mp4) was in the mailbox. The tape was in brilliant color, shot by U.T.’s Ernie Robertson, with John Ward’s play-by-play adding to the excitement. That night, the Vols were the morsel set before the capacity crowd, with South Carolina rated No. 1 in the polls. The oddsmakers were giving 24 points. It appeared to be a mismatch.
Knoxville car dealer Ken Rice was on the trip, and when Ray Mears saw an expensive stuffed Gamecock in a store window, Rice said he would buy it for him. There was, however, one caveat. The Vols had to win that night. Rice’s money looked safe.
When you think about it, the Vols really had South Carolina right where they wanted them. No one gave the Vols a chance. Mears relished the underdog role, and loved a challenge. For Mears, the bigger, the better. Back Ray into a corner, and he would always come out swinging. The Vols were all over the Gamecocks from the get-go. Head coach Frank McGuire and his staff never figured out what the Vols were doing defensively to waylay the Carolina attack.
The Vols won 55-54, and of all the great wins during the Ray Mears Era of Tennessee basketball, this one has to be among the best.
The Vols had lost guards Bill Justus and Billy Hann off a team that finished third in the NIT the year before. The Vols returned junior guard Jimmy England, who was taking Hann’s position at the point, junior forward Don Johnson, and senior center Bobby Croft. Guard Rudy Kinard, who had the game-winning shots in a dramatic win against LSU and Pete Maravich and at Vanderbilt later that season, was injured and did not make the trip.
Mears added senior Kerry Myers and junior Jim Woodall as his fourth and fifth starters. Neither had played that much. That starting five played the entire 40 minutes.
The Vols trailed early by seven points, but kept the tempo of the game in their favor, and kept the crowd out of the game, just as heavy underdogs are supposed to do on the road.
Knoxville native England led the way for the Vols, scoring 20 points, handling the ball efficiently, and canning six pressure-packed free throws down the stretch. Johnson added 18 points, with Croft raking in 13 rebounds and Woodall adding 12.
When the Vols led 49-48, England hit one of his patented fall-away jumpers from the key to stretch the Vol lead, breaking a 7-0 Carolina run. Myers knocked home two more charity tosses to give the Vols the lead at 53-50. In a game of point and counterpoint, England added two more free throws to make the lead 55-52.
After Carolina cut the lead to one, Tennessee was called for an inbounds violation with two ticks remaining on the clock.
This happened before the days of the coaching box, so Mears, resplendent in an orange blazer, walked to the far baseline to rationally discuss the situation with officials Ralph Stout and Burrell Crowell. Apparently satisfied with their answer, he returned to the bench, not without stirring up the crowd.
John Roche had the last shot at a Gamecock victory, throwing up an off-balance jumper that missed to the left. The Vols had won. It was a stunning moment.
This team was not one of Mears’ best, finishing 16-9 for the campaign, but they did find their way into Tennessee hoops history in the season opener.
History also reflects that Rice forked over the money, and Mears got his stuffed gamecock.
“For the most part, players win games,” wrote Marvin West, who covered the game for the Knoxville News-Sentinel, “but if one ever belonged to a coach, this one is Ray Mears’ personal property.”