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Notre Dame basketball once came to NC State ranked No. 1

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Head coach Norm Sloan and the Wolfpack hosted No. 1 Notre Dame in 1979. The Irish return to Raleigh on Saturday for an ACC contest. (NC State media relations)

In Kevin Keatts’ first year, the 45-year-old coach has led NC State to a pair of wins over No. 2-ranked teams, Arizona and Duke, a first in school history in the same regular season.

Both games were on the road, the first on a neutral floor in the Bahamas’ Battle4Atlantis and the second at Raleigh’s PNC Arena.

Few teams have ever had the opportunity to play so many games against highly ranked teams in the same year, but that’s part of the fun of being in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

So, it begged the question about playing games against No. 1 teams during the regular season, something NC State and every other ACC program has done often through the years because 10 of the league’s historic 17 schools have been ranked No. 1 at some point in their histories. (Surprising fact: Maryland, which won the 2002 NCAA title under Gary Williams and had one of the nation’s best programs under Lefty Driesell in the 1970s and ‘80s, has never been ranked No. 1 in the AP men’s basketball poll.)

NC State has played 32 games against No. 1-ranked teams, dating back to top-ranked La Salle’s 88-81 win over Everett Case’s Wolfpack in the first round of the 1954 NCAA East Regional at The Palestra in La Salle’s hometown of Philadelphia.

That was the first of the Wolfpack’s 12 consecutive losses to No. 1-ranked teams. That streak ended in the 1983 NCAA Championship game, when the Wolfpack won the school’s second national championship by beating top-ranked Houston 54-52 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s a rather famous game in school history.

Since then, the Pack has won six games over No. 1 teams (one vs. Houston, three vs. UNC-CH and two vs. Duke).

One less famous contest — and one of only six games the Wolfpack has played historically against a non-conference No. 1 team — was on Feb. 7, 1979, when this weekend’s opponent, Notre Dame, came to Reynolds Coliseum as the nation’s top-ranked team.

It was the second time that season the Wolfpack faced a No. 1 team, having lost 65-63 in December to top-ranked Duke on the opening day of the Big Four Tournament in Greensboro.

Digger Phelps’ Fighting Irish came to Raleigh to face Norm Sloan’s unranked Wolfpack in their fifth consecutive week atop the AP poll. It was the second installment of an unlikely six-game home-and-home series between the two college basketball powers from 1978-83, the Fighting Irish having won the inaugural game by 11 points the previous year in South Bend, Indiana.

It was a weird year for Sloan and his team, which won the inaugural Great Alaska Shootout with victories over Texas A&M, Pepperdine and No. 4 Louisville. It split its two games in the Big Four and it swept two games in the North-South Doubleheader in Charlotte.

But Sloan’s team struggled in the ACC and, in particular, close games. The Notre Dame contest was no different, as the Pack put a longstanding home winning streak against non-conference opponents on the line.

The Pack lost a pair of five-point leads in the second half, as junior star Charles “Hawkeye” Whitney struggled mightily throughout the game. Whitney was held to a season-low six points in the contest, on 3-of-14 shooting. Point guard Clyde Austin carried the team in Whitney’s stead, scoring 14 of his team-high 16 points in the first half, then deferred to Kenny Matthews for offense in the second half.

With less than 30 seconds to play, the Wolfpack had the ball trailing 51-50.

The sure-handed Whitney, swarmed by a pair of defenders, missed a 10-foot jump shot that would have given the Wolfpack a lead with 10 seconds to play. Notre Dame’s Kelly Tripucka, who led his team with 16 points and 10 rebounds, grabbed the rebound and was immediately fouled by Craig Watts. He gave the Irish a 53-50 lead with six seconds to play by hitting a pair of free throws to finish 8 for 8 from the line.

Whitney scored an uncontested layup with two seconds remaining and the Irish averted a five-second call when Rich Branning found Tripucka streaking towards midcourt to end the game.

“This thing is just not bouncing right for us,” Sloan said after the game. “It’s really no consolation that we lost to the No. 1 team in the country, it’s still a loss. It doesn’t taste very good—it’s hard to live with.

“But that’s life. We just can’t seem to get over the hump.”

The disappointing loss ended the Wolfpack’s historic 12-year, 70-game winning streak against non-conference opponents at Reynolds Coliseum. The last team before Notre Dame from outside the league to beat the Wolfpack on its home court was unranked Georgia on Dec. 29, 1967, in Sloan’s second year as head coach of his alma mater.

Tim Peeler is a regular contributor for The Wolfpacker and can be reached at tmpeeler@ncsu.edu.

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