Contacted recently in Kernersville, former Duke basketball center Mike Lewis knew exactly what the caller wanted to talk about. Unfortunately.
“Surely, after 50 years, you’ve forgotten about that nightmare,” Lewis said with a laugh. “I haven’t been asked anything about that game in a while. I’ve pretty much put it out of my mind. Just about.”
Lewis was a participant on the losing end of what has become known in the half-century since as “The 12-10 Game.” Unranked and unheralded N.C. State employed stalling tactics to defeat No. 6-ranked and heavily favored Duke by that score in the ACC Tournament semifinals on March 8, 1968.
“It was a little surreal, to tell you the truth,” said Joe Kennedy, another Duke starter in that game. “I haven’t played in a game like that before or since, when you walk off the court and you feel like you haven’t even been in a game.”
From the opening tap, Norm Sloan, N.C. State’s second-year head coach, believed the Wolfpack’s best chance to win was to draw Duke out of its 2-3 zone defense. In so doing, N.C. State could move Duke’s Lewis away from the basket and allow the Wolfpack’s smaller and quicker guards to score around the basket.
Vic Bubas, Duke’s ninth-year head coach who had guided his teams to Final Four appearances in 1963, 1964 and 1966, decided not to play along with Sloan’s strategy. The Blue Devils had survived a slowdown game in the opening round, a 43-40 victory over Clemson, and there was every reason to believe they could do it again against N.C. State.
So, N.C. State took advantage of not having a shot clock and held the ball without challenge from Duke for most of the game. At one point in the first half, Bill Kretzer, the Wolfpack’s senior center, retained possession of the ball near midcourt for 14 consecutive minutes. Duke led 4-2 at halftime, but N.C. State secured the win in a flurry of action in the final two minutes of the game.
One Charlotte newspaper headlined the game as the “Refrigerator Bowl.”
Both coaches defended their game plans afterward.
“I was coach, and I’m hired to win,” Sloan said at the time.
“I accept full responsibility for choosing to do it that way,” Bubas told reporters.
That does not make it any easier to explain today.
“You talk to younger people today about it and they say, ‘That can’t be true. How do you do that?’ ” Lewis said. “They don’t realize there hasn’t always been a shot clock, hasn’t always been a 3-point shot and there hasn’t always been a five-second close-guarding rule. All of the things that helped make that possible aren’t in the game today.”
The genesis of the 12-10 Game was the same strategy Dean Smith’s North Carolina team employed two seasons earlier against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals. The heavily favored, third-ranked Blue Devils escaped with a 21-20 victory en route to reaching the Final Four.
In electing to pull Duke out of the zone, N.C. State’s Sloan was essentially admitting that his 15-9 Wolfpack could not compete with the more-talented 20-4 Blue Devils.
“My philosophy, particularly in those days, is the only way a weaker team beats a better team is to play better than they do,” said Vann Williford, a sophomore for the Wolfpack at the time. “The only way you’re going to have a chance at doing that is to shorten the amount of time you have to play better than they do.”
Williford insists today that Sloan never mentioned putting the ball into a deep freeze prior to the game. The game plan, according to Williford, was to have N.C. State’s two low-post players, the 6-6 Williford and the 6-7 Kretzer, handle the ball on the perimeter.
At one point, while Kretzer was dribbling the ball near midcourt, N.C. State forward Dick Braucher walked to the baseline where Wolfpack cheerleaders were assembled. They gave him a stick of chewing gum, which he unwrapped and popped into his mouth while the game clock was running.
Near the end of the first half, Sloan called Williford and senior guard Eddie Biedenbach to the sideline during the “action.” Sloan wanted to plot strategy for the final minute when the Wolfpack would attempt to score. During Sloan’s strategy session with Williford and Biedenbach, Duke senior guard Tony Barone joined the huddle.
“With 15 seconds to go, here’s what I want you to do,” Williford recalled Sloan saying.
“Coach, do you want us to call timeout?” Biedenbach said, according to Williford.
“No,” Sloan responded and pointed at Barone. “If we call timeout, they’ll take him out. With him in the game, we can do anything we want.”
More than a few of the 11,500 fans at the old Charlotte Coliseum on Independence Boulevard headed to the exits at halftime or early in the second half. Boos from Duke fans increased as N.C. State resumed its slowdown tactics after halftime.
With 40 seconds remaining and N.C. State holding a 9-8 lead, Duke fouled Kretzer, who according to the rules of the day was awarded one free-throw attempt. Kretzer was a career 58 percent free-throw shooter.
Duke called timeout to unsettle Kretzer.
“Kretz, you’ve got to hit something,” Braucher recalled telling his teammate.
Kretzer’s attempt hit the backboard first and ricocheted off the rim at an odd angle.
“Lewis had the inner position,” Braucher recalled. “He went up on an angle because the ball was out further. He grabbed it with his left hand, brought it down and dropped it. I stepped in right behind him, picked it up and put it in the basket.”
Winning free throw
When Duke countered with a basket to cut the lead to 11-10, the Blue Devils fouled Braucher this time, with 3 seconds remaining. Braucher was a career 67 percent free-throw shooter.
He calmly sank the winning free throw.
N.C. State’s euphoria over the upset victory lasted less than 24 hours as the Wolfpack fell to UNC by 37 points in the championship game. The Wolfpack’s season was over.
Duke was devastated by the loss. Bubas admitted to his team afterward that he had erred in his strategy not to chase the Wolfpack, but that he made many correct decisions that lead to a successful season.
Because the ACC tournament champion was extended the league’s lone bid to the NCAA tournament, Duke reluctantly accepted an invitation to play in the NIT. Lewis said the Blue Devils heart was not into it and they bowed out of the NIT in the second round.
All who participated in the game continue to recognize it as one for the ages.