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What was Charlotte 49ers first national basketball tournament appearance? Hint: It wasn’t the 1976 NIT or 1977 NCAA tourney

By Richard Walker

Most longtime Charlotte 49ers fans think their first appearances in national championship basketball tournaments came when coach Lee Rose and a team led by future NBA star Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell led the school to the 1976 NIT championship game and 1977 NCAA Final Four.

The actual answer is the 1969-70 team that played in the NAIA District 26 tournament in the final year of the head coaching tenure of longtime UNC Charlotte administrator Harvey Murphy.

Not only was it the 49ers’ final year before it became a NCAA Division I school, the team had to play “home” games at the Harrisburg Gym and Charlotte’s East Mecklenburg and Garinger high schools as the school’s on-campus Belk Gymnasium was a season away from opening.

Murphy, who was the school’s first athletic director from 1965 to 1972, had actually hired his replacement (Bill Foster) before leading the 49ers to their second straight Dixie Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament title in 1970.

Harvey Murphy when he was hired at UNC Charlotte in 1965.

However, it was a 10-8 NAIA record that gave Charlotte a berth in the four-team 1970 NAIA District tournament held at the Winston-Salem Coliseum in early March. Even though they were only 14-14 overall, the 10-8 district mark was the best of the five NAIA District 26 independents.

But the task was daunting as the 49ers drew nationally-ranked Carolinas Conference champion Guilford in their semifinal matchup.

The Quakers the week before had become only the second of four teams in the 90-year history of that league to go unbeaten in the regular season and also win the postseason tournament. Coach Jack Jensen’s team was led by eventual 10-year NBA player (and future NBA head coach) M.L. Carr, current NAIA All-American David Smith and eventual NAIA All-American Jerry Crocker.

Coming off three wins in three days in Lynchburg, Va., to win the Dixie Conference tournament, Murphy told The Charlotte Observer the team was going to enter the national tournament with momentum.

“I was looking for 17 of 18 wins this season,” Murphy said. “We hit a slow streak about midway in the season that hurt us. But I’m glad we were able to finish strong.”

Gastonia’s Larry Reid earned tournament MVP honors with 58 points in three conference tournament wins for the No. 3-seeded 49ers – 103-81 over College of Charleston, 63-61 over Methodist and 49-41 over host Lynchburg; Lynchburg had upset top-seeded St. Andrews 66-53 in its semifinal victory.

Reid had attended Highland High School before graduating high school in Pensacola, Fla., in 1966. He later was head coach at Tennessee State University and coached eventual NBA standout (and Charlotte Hornets forward) Anthony Mason.

Ben Basinger and Charlotte’s Norris Dae joined Reid on the all-tournament team. Other key 49ers included Pete Donahue, Charlotte’s Stanley Graham and Gastonia’s Jim Turpin.

Turpin was a 1966 Hunter Huss High graduate who also played at Gaston College with current Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton before transferring to UNCC; Turpin later was head basketball coach at East Gaston High School and coached several sports at Huss.

Larry Reid was Tennessee State head basketball coach from 1985 to 1989.

After a 10-day layoff, Charlotte fell 78-67 to Guilford in the semifinals as Carr led the Quakers with 20 points while Reid had a game-high 25 points for the 49ers.

The following night, Charlotte lost 77-74 to Elon in the consolation game as Reid scored 26 and Guilford downed North Carolina A&T 80-72 in the district title game.

Guilford would go on to finish 32-5 overall – the most victories in school and league history – after a fourth-place finish in the 32-team NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, Mo. The Quakers lost in the tournament semifinals to eventual champion Kentucky State.

When Murphy turned over the coaching reins to Foster, the 49ers were on the fast track towards major college success. Foster led the 49ers to an 88-38 record in five seasons before becoming head coach at Clemson of the ACC and Lee Rose replaced him for three years – highlighted by the 1976 NIT and 1977 NCAA tournament appearances – before he was hired away by Purdue of the Big Ten.

Charlotte’s 1977 Final Four appearance remains a NCAA record as the youngest Division I school to have played in the event.

Murphy, meanwhile, remained at the school another 26 years since he was hired as athletic director, basketball and as chairman of the school’s department of health and physical education (later renamed department of health promotion and kinesiology) in 1965. He would stay at UNCC for 31 years and also was a catalyst for starting the school’s intramural program.

Murphy died on Feb. 5, 2018 at 81.