(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in Clemson Athletics History’ countdown. Starting Tuesday, April 14 we will be revealing portions of the list daily on WSPA Channel 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Tigers history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with former Clemson Sports Information Director and longtime color analyst Tim Bourret, who’s still heard on their radio network and works with the Clemson sports department covering Tigers Golf.
#6: 1980 Men’s Basketball Elite Eight
In what remains the deepest run in Clemson men’s basketball history, the 1980 Tigers stamped their mark on the program, taking it to new heights in the NCAA tournament.
It was Clemson’s first trip to the tournament, an achievement in its own right. But not only did they break new ground, they kept winning on an improbable journey to the Elite Eight.
Prior to 1975, a rule was in place that only conference champions were invited to the NCAA tournament. Because the Tigers had never won a conference title, they had not participated in the NCAA tourney.
But five years after the rules were relaxed, Clemson made its way into uncharted territory.
Although the Tigers failed to reach the NCAA Tournament as a program coming into the 1979 season, there was still a feeling that this squad could make it to the “Big Dance.”
“There was optimism even going into the year, because Clemson had come off of a pretty good ‘78-’79 year when they beat Kentucky in the NIT,” said Tim Bourret, former Clemson sports information director.
The team was loaded with talent, especially with a front line of Larry Nance, Horace Wyatt, and John “Moose” Campbell, all standing 6 ’10”. They were dubbed the ‘Clemson Skyline’.
“You don’t see any teams that have three 6’10” guys starting on the front line anymore, but college basketball was played a little bit differently then,” said Bourret.
Coupled with the front court was a standout junior point guard named Billy Williams, who averaged over 17 points and 4 assists per game in the ‘79-’80 season.
They beat four top-twenty teams at home that year including the program’s first win over a top-ranked team, Duke, resulting in the fans storming the court for the second time that season.
Littlejohn Coliseum had a capacity of 11,200. But on that night, 13,863 fans packed it to watch the Tigers battle the Blue Devils.
Bourret remembers the atmosphere well.
“All the aisles were full of people. 5,500 students showed up for that game which was about 2,500 more than what was expected. There was a lot of great interest that year.”
Several close losses throughout the season, however, pushed the Tigers to 8-6 in the ACC. But it was good enough for them to punch their ticket to the West Region of the NCAA Tournament as a sixth seed.
Clemson began its journey in the West Region in Utah taking on No. 11 Utah State. A hard-fought contest in the first round went down to the wire, but the Tigers came away with a close victory, 76-73.
In the second round, the Tigers had to get past Danny Ainge and BYU, a team that recorded 23 wins in the regular season. Not to mention, they took on another Utah team in its home state.
“People didn’t give us much of a chance,” said Bourret.
Another close battle ended in favor of Clemson. Behind great performances by Williams and Nance, the Tigers defeated BYU, 71-66, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. Round three brought on another underdog, Lamar.
The Cardinals were on a Cinderella run of their own. As a 10th seed, Lamar toppled number seven Weber State in the opening round and then pulled off a major upset over second-seeded Oregon State, 81-77, in round two.
Lamar and Clemson met in Tucson, Arizona for a chance to get to the Elite Eight. The Tigers beat Billy Tubbs’ Cardinals, 74-66, advancing to the regional finals.
“All of a sudden here we are playing for the right to go to the Final Four,” said Bourret. “I remember how everyone was just kind of going along taking things one at a time, and people really didn’t think about what a terrific accomplishment this was for a program in its first year [in the tournament].”
Sixth-seeded Clemson took on on eighth-seeded UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. A poor ending to the first half, however, put the Tigers in a deep hole, eventually leading to a loss.
“We had a bad five minutes toward the end of the half when UCLA went on an 11-0 run and that ended up being the final margin of the game to keep us from going to Indianapolis that year for the Final Four.”
UCLA won, 85-74, advancing to the Final Four. Clemson finished its season 23-9.
“It was a terrific season, a memorable year,” said Bourret.
A lineup that included a future NBA All-Star, with talented players around him, reached previously unattained heights and earned the program’s first NCAA bid. It made for one memorable moment in Clemson history.
Clemson Top Ten List: