Twenty years ago today, College of Charleston stunned No. 8 Georgia Tech and put itself on the college basketball map
Ken Ward recalls walking from the visitors’ locker room to the basketball court at Alexander Memorial Coliseum. He crossed paths with Georgia Tech’s Travis Best, a top ACC point guard on his way to the NBA.
Cougars upsets of Top 10 teams:
Jan. 16, 1993 No. 8 Georgia Tech 84-67
Dec. 5, 1999 No. 3 North Carolina 66-64
Jan. 4, 2010 No. 9 North Carolina 82-79 (OT)
“He kind of looked at me in the tunnel like, ‘This is going to be a walk in the park and let’s get this game over with,’” said Ward, a former College of Charleston forward. “Of course, they didn’t know what they were in for.”
Prior to Jan. 16, 1993, the College of Charleston had yet to pull its first major upset. Coach John Kresse and the Cougars were one year removed from playing in the NAIA. They opened the 1992-93 season against Voorhees.
On that night exactly 20 years ago, Bobby Cremins’ Georgia Tech team was ranked No. 8 entering the game against the Cougars. The Yellow Jackets had beaten No. 1 Duke a week earlier.
But the Cougars didn’t just win in Atlanta, they hammered Georgia Tech, 84-67. What happened that Saturday night at the “Thriller Dome” shook the college basketball world.
“It put this college on the basketball map,” Kresse said, “without a doubt.”
Kresse would go on to lead the Cougars to four NCAA tournament appearances and two NIT appearances between 1994 and 1999.
But the 1992-93 Cougars showed up at Georgia Tech with a 1-2 road record, including a 60-50 loss to Georgia State in Atlanta exactly one week earlier.
The Yellow Jackets had been to the NCAA tournament eight years in a row under Cremins.
Kresse’s preparation included painstaking analysis of Georgia Tech’s 80-79 victory over Duke, a team led by Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley.
“We thought it was a near-impossible task,” Kresse said. “They had such big guys inside. But, you know, we still always went out there to claw and scratch and attempt to win.”
Cremins’ agony that night led to sweet irony. Kindly, he gave the upstart Cougars a pair of lucrative guarantee games, the first of which was Georgia Tech’s 77-70 victory in Atlanta in January of 1992.
Kresse always liked his fellow New Yorker, and enthusiastically cast his lot for Cremins when the College of Charleston was searching for a coach to replace Tom Herrion after Gregg Marshall accepted and rejected the job within the same few days in 2006.
Now the two former head coaches hang out and pull for Doug Wojcik’s Cougars. Proximity allows for playful exchanges, such as this one at TD Arena last weekend:
Kresse: “Yes, I do remember that game. I really outcoached this sucker.”
Cremins: “My team threw the game.”
Kresse: “Hey, Bobby. What’s the name of the airport in Atlanta?”
Kresse: “Yes. You know, after the game, we took the bus to the airport and we just flew the bus right home.”
Cremins: “Oh, (expletive). You (expletive).”
Always lots of laughter from these two.
Ken Ward scored back-to-back inside baskets to give the College of Charleston a 21-20 lead. The Cougars led 34-31 at halftime and never trailed in the second half.
Patrick King’s dunk off a lob from Atlanta native Marcus Woods gave Charleston a 45-40 edge, and King’s reverse slam made for an emphatic final basket with five seconds left.
Forwards King and Ward, often overlooked as Cougars contributors of yesteryear, scored 20 and 10 points, respectively.
Point guard Marion Busby was the star: 29 points and five assists.
“Buzz was on his game, Pat King was on his game and Ken Ward and all the big guys did their job and played well,” said Anthony Johnson, a reserve freshman guard that season. “We really didn’t make many mistakes.”
Within the crowd of 8,578, a small group of Cougars fans chanted “C of C! C of C!” as players lined up to shake hands.
“It was kind of surreal,” Johnson said. “Like, ‘This isn’t really happening.’ ”
Georgia Tech had the size advantage with 6-8 James Forrest and 6-11 Malcolm Mackey, though the Yellow Jackets surely missed 6-10 Ivano Newbill, out with a sore knee.
The Cougars were barely outrebounded, 36-35.
“We got outplayed,” Cremins said. “We were not ready to play, and they were definitely ready to play. We took them lightly.”
Forrest led the Yellow Jackets with 28 points, Mackey grabbed 17 rebounds and Best scored 17 points with eight assists. But Georgia Tech shot only 41.3 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from the free-throw line (9 of 24).
“We respected Georgia Tech, no doubt about that,” said Ward, a nurse practitioner who lives in Houston. “But most of us had played against James Forrest and we knew we could compete with the best.”
The 1992-93 Cougars went on to lose at Coastal Carolina, S.C. State, UNC Greensboro and American on their way to a 19-8 record. The next year, the College of Charleston stunningly earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, losing to Wake Forest and Tim Duncan.
Georgia Tech won the 1993 ACC tournament as a No. 6 seed. It was Cremins’ third and final ACC title.
Since 1993, John Kresse Court has been christened at the College of Charleston and Bobby Cremins Court at Georgia Tech.
Anthony Johnson scored only two points in 16 minutes against Georgia Tech, but wound up having a longer NBA career than Travis Best or anyone else who played in that game.
Drew Barry played for Georgia Tech. Rick Barry, Drew’s father, spent part of his Hall of Fame professional career with the New York Nets in the old American Basketball Association when Kresse was a Nets assistant coach. Canyon Barry, another of Rick’s sons, is a College of Charleston freshman guard. Like his father, Canyon shoots free throws underhanded.
Everything changed that night at Georgia Tech, Kresse’s first upset in a string of big wins that made the College of Charleston a lot of money, earned publicity that helped change the academic dynamic of the school, build a new arena and eventually attract Cremins.
“It was a longshot,” Kresse said, “but you always play the game to win.”
Reach Gene Sapakoff at 937-5593 or Twitter @sapakoff.