FAIRBORN — Mike Tyson did it at age 20. The NBA’s 1978 Seattle SuperSonics did it at 12. MLB’s Florida Marlins did it at 5. These individuals and teams reached the pinnacle of their respective sports at a remarkably young age.
Wright State Univcersity’s men’s basketball program also belongs on this list, having won the Division II national championship in just its 13th year of playing varsity basketball.
Midway through the 1983 season, the team and coaches were questioning themselves and the lofty pre-season expectations placed upon them. But point guard Mike Grote’s miracle shot to win at rival Kentucky Wesleyan in late January helped the Raiders regain their confidence after losing three of six within a two-week stretch just before the trip to Owensboro, Ky.
That 65-64 win was the second of what wound up being an eight-game winning streak, which included a convincing rematch victory at home over KWC. At the time, head coach Ralph Underhill said, “We were playing better than any other club in my five years here.”
Assistant coach Jim Brown has a similar recollection of how the team started to gel.
“It seemed like every day we came to practice, our first team got better and better and better. We would have scrimmages at the end of practice where our first team would just obliterate our second team, and our second team was pretty good. It included players like T.C. Johnson, Mark McCormick, Theron Barbour, Mark Vest…some guys that could really play.”
With the team on a roll, they traveled to Louisville in late February to take on the fifth-ranked Cardinals. Louisville was coming off a Final Four appearance the previous season, and was loaded with talent, including future NBA players Milt Wagner, Lancaster Gordon, Rodney McCray, Charles Jones and Billy Thompson.
Despite being outsized and out-talented, the Raiders played well and were within six points midway through the second half. The game got away in the late stages, resulting in a 71-55 loss. The confidence of the team continued to grow, knowing they played with the D-I powerhouse for almost 30 minutes. “It was important for us to go down and make a statement,” said Grote, “and we played with them.”
Louisville finished the year 32-4, and would lose in the Final Four to Houston, which featured a young Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
The loss to Louisville would be the final one of the season for the Raiders.
The team won its last three games and finished the regular season 23-4. Despite Wright State being the No. 1 seed in the Great Lakes Region, Kentucky Wesleyan was selected to host the NCAA regional round for the second year in a row. In 1982, KWC had beaten the Raiders on their way to a third-place finish in D-II.
Wright State opened the tournament with a 71-57 win over Lewis, setting up a third meeting with the Panthers. Similar to the January game in Owensboro, the regional finals went down to the final minute, when Anthony Bias calmly sank two free throws with three seconds remaining to give Wright State a 69-67 victory. For the first time, the Raiders would make it out of regional play.
In the quarterfinal round against Bloomsburg State in Pennsylvania, a raucous crowd met the Raiders, but it didn’t matter. They routed Bloomsburg 73-53, behind 26 points from Gary Monroe.
It was on to Springfield, Mass., where the Raiders were joined in the Final Four by Morningside, the University of the District of Columbia, and semifinal opponent Cal-State Bakersfield. In a competitive, but sloppy contest, Wright State prevailed over CSB by seven, 57-50.
“They were a very good team. We were pretty evenly matched with them,” recalls Brown. Fred Moore led the way with 20 points and 13 rebounds.
It was far from the Raiders’ best performance, and far from what would be needed to beat highly regarded UDC, the defending national champions who beat Morningside 92-77 in the other semifinal.
The Firebirds entered the tournament seeded first overall, after losing only two games all season. In fact, they lost only two the previous season on their way to the title. They were led by seven-footer Earl Jones and forward Michael Britt. Both were two-time All-Americans and would be selected in the NBA draft, Jones as a first-rounder by the Los Angeles Lakers and Britt as a second-rounder by the Washington Bullets.
The players were well aware of their formidable foe.
“I remember sitting and watching [the other semifinal game] and thinking ‘Oh my gosh, we’re in trouble,’” said Grote. “They looked almost unbeatable to me.”
If there was any uncertainty in the minds of the players, it disappeared during the off-day practice session at the Springfield Civic Center.
“The doors opened up above and here come the guys from D.C. into the gym, and they aren’t supposed to be in there”, remembers Assistant Coach Bob Grote. “Ralph turns around and verbally accosts them and tells them to get out. They’ll have their turn, and we’ll see them tomorrow night. Now, all of a sudden the players, they’re like, ‘if the coaches are willing to step out on the line and do that for us, this game’s over.’”
The Raiders played well in the first half, and led by seven at the intermission. Brown knew that lead could evaporate quickly with a team like UDC.
“As the second half progressed, in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘they’re going to make a run and they’re gonna take the lead.’ I’m hoping it doesn’t happen, and you hope you can stay with these guys, and we did.”
The Raiders played a near-flawless second half, slowing down the pace with 10 minutes left. This strategy, Brown recalls, was risky.
“We were up only eight points or so, and Ralph turns to me and says ‘I want to go to the delay game’. We were just going to hold the ball and make them come get us. There was no shot clock at that time. Well, it was brilliant.”
With UDC unable to steal the ball, they resorted to fouling. The Raiders hit 29 of 32 free throws in the second half, and steadily extended the lead. In the end, the Raiders were National Champions, winning 92-73.
For the game, Wright State shot 63 percent from the field, and shot a whopping 41 free throws, making 32. Monroe, a Washington D.C. native, scored 23 points and set an NCAA tournament record by connecting on all 11 of his free throw attempts. He was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Bias added 16 points, while Fred Moore tossed in 15. Both joined Monroe on the all-tournament team, along with UDC’s Jones (26 points) and Britt (17 points).
The 19-point margin was the third-largest ever in Division II history and prevented UDC from becoming the first team since Kentucky Wesleyan (1968 and 1969) to repeat as national champion.
The championship also meant a great deal to the community. The team flew back the next day, arriving in Columbus. As the bus approached campus on Interstate 675, they were greeted by a caravan of cars parked along the highway. The celebration that began the night before in Springfield carried over to the Fairborn Holiday Inn, where players and coaches were met by several hundred fans.
The overall impact of the victory began to set in. Mike Grote remembers thinking, “Wow, this thing means something. It wasn’t just 15 guys, 3 or 4 coaches and the trainer that won it. It was the whole community that won it.”