Canisius - yes, the Griffs - won the NCAA Tournament's longest game
NEW YORK (March 12, 1956) – It was the only shot unheralded Fran Corcoran made in the game, but the Canisius College senior picked a pretty good time to be on target.
Three seconds left to play in the fourth overtime of the Griffs’ 1956 NCAA Tournament game at Madison Square Garden against second-ranked North Carolina State, and it delivered one of the greatest victories in not only school history, but Buffalo-area college basketball history.
And, as luck would have it, just as the ball passed through the hoop, a New York Times photographer clicked his camera, and in that split second when the flashbulb exploded, the iconic basket was preserved forever.
For more than five decades, that picture hung in Corcoran’s home in Pinehurst, N.C., a constant reminder of this Golden Griffin moment. You see the ball rippling the net, and in the background you see Corcoran’s eyes lighting up while behind him, the fans at the Garden leap from their seats in excited disbelief. Corcoran’s only field goal that night ended what is still the longest in NCAA tournament history and it made the final score Canisius 79, North Carolina State 78.
“It’s funny,” Corcoran said. “They say everybody has their 15 minutes of fame. That was mine.”
In the decade of the 1950s, college basketball was king in Western New York. The NFL’s Buffalo Bills did not exist. The NHL’s Buffalo Sabres did not exist. The NBA’s Buffalo Braves did not exist. In terms of spectator sports, all Buffalo had was professional minor league hockey and baseball (both teams nicknamed the Bisons), and big-time Division I college basketball at Canisius, Niagara and St. Bonaventure, known locally as the Little Three.
While the great rivalry between Calvin Murphy of Niagara and Bob Lanier of St. Bonaventure in the late 1960s produced more headlines and garnered more national attention, there was never a period in Little Three history that was more captivating than the 1950s when doubleheaders at the Aud were the norm, and nearly every game between the schools produced a new form of excitement.
“It was the sport,” Corcoran said of the Little Three. “There was no pro basketball or pro football team, the hockey was minor league, so college basketball was the big thing. The doubleheaders were great. I used to love to go to the games and watch even when I wasn’t playing. It was wonderful.”
And led by the great Henry Nowak - who still ranks ninth on the Griffs’ all-time scoring list even though he didn’t have the benefit of playing four years because freshmen were ineligible in his day - Canisius ruled the roost. During Nowak’s three years from 1954-55 to 1956-57, the Griffs beat their Little Three rivals 11 of 14 times, and those victories helped them secure three consecutive bids to the NCAA tournament.
To put that achievement into perspective, in the 63 years since Nowak graduated, the Griffs have made it back to the big dance only once - in 1996 when they lost a first-round game to Utah, 72-43.
Those Canisius NCAA teams were well-honed units, coached by Joe Curran to a three-year record of 59-20, and the 1955-56 squad may have been the best in school history. Four of the Griffs’ 40 all-time leading scorers - Nowak, Johnny McCarthy, Dave Markey and Greg Britz, all of whom are members of the Canisius Hall of Fame - were regulars on that team, and Corcoran, Bob Kelly, Joe Leone and Jimmy McCarthy were solid contributors during the Griffs’ 17-6 regular season.
The Aud was the place to be in the 1950s for college basketball.
Nowak was an all-everything forward, a player who could shoot, pass, rebound and play defense. McCarthy was the point guard, a dribbling demon who in the days before the shot clock could protect leads by playing keepaway.
Nobody could take the ball from him,” Corcoran said. Markey was a sweet-shooting guard, Kelly a strong rebounding forward and Leone was the center. Corcoran was the sixth man who could play guard or forward, while fellow senior Jimmy McCarthy and sophomore Britz were also part of Curran’s rotation.
Canisius started the season 2-3 and was just 11-6 after a double-overtime loss to Manhattan. But then came a six-game winning streak to close the schedule that included victories over Bowling Green, Holy Cross, Villanova, Detroit, Syracuse and Niagara, catapulting the Griffs into the 32-team NCAA field.
Their first opponent: The second-ranked Wolfpack, winners of the Atlantic Coast Conference and a team many felt would be No. 1, Bill Russell-led San Francisco’s eventual foil in the national championship game with star 6-foot-8 center Ron Shavlik leading the way.
In 1955-56 Shavlik averaged 19.5 rebounds per game and in a game against Villanova that year he had scored 49 points and grabbed 35 rebounds. When the ACC picked its 50 greatest players to celebrate the conference’s 50th anniversary in 2002, Shavlik made the cut.
Another star for coach Everett Case was forward Vic Molodet, who averaged 18.2 points per game and was MVP of the 1956 ACC tournament. In 2001, Molodet joined Shavlik in the North Carolina State Hall of Fame. Phil Dinardo and John Maglio were also key members of the team.
Although the Griffs had advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAAs the year before, beating Williams and Villanova before losing to LaSalle, the Wolfpack showed little respect.
“There was a story that went around, and I don’t know if it was true, that one of the reporters in New York asked Case, ‘What do you think of Canisius?’” Corcoran recalled. “He said, ‘I’m not sure I can spell it.’ Well, after the game the students sent him letters spelling it out.”
From the early moments it was apparent the Griffs had not come to New York to play the role of patsy. Johnny McCarthy’s set shot snapped a 6-6 tie and Canisius held the lead until Molodet drove for a basket to put North Carolina State up 30-29. Even then, the Griffs came back with a 10-4 spurt to close the half ahead 39-34 as McCarthy scored 12.
Shavlik, who would finish with 25 points, really couldn’t establish his usual dominance inside because the Griffs employed a collapsing zone. “Joe Leone played Shavlik in front whenever possible, and the two forwards fell off to help on Shavlik whenever they could,” said Curran.
The lead ballooned to nine shortly after the intermission when Markey and Kelly each hit jumpers, and then Nowak took charge, scoring 16 of his game-high 29 points to give Canisius a 63-59 bulge with about five minutes remaining in regulation.
North Carolina State surged ahead as Molodet made four free throws and Maglio swished a hook shot, but Markey nailed a corner jumper with 2:35 left to tie it at 65, and when neither team scored again, overtime dawned.
One free throw by Nowak and two by McCarthy gave Canisius a quick lead in the first extra period, but Dinardo’s jumper with 20 seconds left sent the Wolfpack out front, 69-68. The Griffs went to their go-to guy Nowak, and he drew a foul with five ticks left. After making the first for the tie, he missed the second, and thus, overtime No. 2.
After Maglio and Nowak traded baskets, the Griffs gained possession, stalled until 15 seconds remained, then called timeout to set up a play for Nowak. However, his shot bounced off the rim, and at 71-71, the teams headed for the third overtime.
This one was scoreless as both teams stalled, drawing boos from the crowd of 14,522, and when each side missed the only shot it attempted, it was on to the fourth overtime. Despite fatigue beginning to set in, the teams returned to a more open style game.
Leone tipped in an errant Nowak shot, but Shavlik answered with a pair of free throws. Markey and Kelly each made two from the line to put Canisius up 77-74, but Dinardo scored on a layup and Maglio stole the ball from Markey and converted a layup to put the Wolfpack in the lead at 78-77.
After the Griffs misfired on their next possession, North Carolina State grabbed the rebound and called timeout with 30 seconds to go, and upon resumption of play, Kelly fouled Maglio with 10 seconds remaining.
“What went through my mind at that point is we really put these guys through the hoops, and gosh darnit, we did the best we could,” Corcoran said. “Now we’re going to lose because we figured he’s going to make the two foul shots.”
He didn’t. Maglio missed the front end of the one-and-one, Markey corralled the rebound, threw it out to McCarthy and he fed Corcoran down the right side. “All I could think was I have to get it up quick because if I miss, we can still get a rebound,” said Corcoran.
No need. The ball splashed through, the Garden erupted, and when North Carolina State failed to get off a shot in the final three seconds, one of the biggest upsets in tournament history was complete.
Corcoran had played against Dinardo when the two were prepping in Philadelphia, and after the game he remembered Dinardo saying it was the worst loss he’d ever had. Same for Case. In a commemorative book about the history of ACC basketball, this game was referenced and Case was quoted as saying it was the most bitter defeat of his career.
“They really expected to be playing San Francisco in the finals,” said Corcoran.
North Carolina State's Ron Shavlik (No. 84) was selected as one of the ACC's top 50 players of all time.
When the horn sounded, the Griffs rushed to Corcoran and hoisted him on their shoulders, giving him the ride of his life. Meanwhile, his mother missed all of the hoopla because she was too nervous to watch. “Being from Philadelphia my mom and dad never got a chance to see me play in Buffalo so they were all there,” Corcoran said. “My mom is very religious and she was in the hallway, she couldn’t stand to watch, so she was out there saying the rosary.”
In the New York Times picture - which the newspaper sent to Curran, who then forwarded it to Corcoran - Markey is in the foreground, underneath the basket, prepared to play the hero’s role. He laughs about it today.
“Corcoran had the ball with about three seconds to go on the clock and I was wide open under the basket,” Markey said. “I can still remember taking off down the wing and being open. I could have been Corcoran’s mother and he wouldn’t have given me the ball. I can picture it right now, I’m under the left side of the basket and he’s on the right side top. I’m wide open, nobody near me, screaming for him to give me the ball.”
Corcoran’s reply: “Yeah, but Markey was a terrible shooter. Jim McCarthy, who threw me the pass, went on to become a senior vice president at Merrill Lynch. I worked there, too, so he was my ultimate boss and he kidded me all the time. He’d say, ‘Without me, you’d never have had the opportunity.’ I told him, ‘No way I was giving the ball up.’”
The Griffs took out Dartmouth in the second round in Corcoran’s hometown of Philadelphia, but with a berth in the Final Four on the line, they lost a heartbreaker the next night to Temple, 60-58. Nowak, after scoring 29 points in each of the first two games, was held to nine by the Owls.
Corcoran retired to Pinehurst, N.C. in the heart of ACC country where basketball is like religion, and every once in a while he tweaks those hoop junkies along Tobacco Road.
“When March Madness comes around there’s a place down here called the Pinecrest Inn where a lot of the golfers go,” Corcoran said. “I’ve been over there a few times and these young guys watch the games, drink beer, say they’re big fans. So just for kicks I ask them if they know what the longest game ever played in NCAA history was. And they never get it. And then I say, ‘By the way, I’m the guy that made the winning shot.’ I love it.”