You could not make this stuff up.
It was a packed house with 11,000 fans jammed into the newly-minted Metro Centre in downtown Halifax in 1978. Two Nova Scotia university basketball teams were locked in a pitched battle to win the national championship.
Fans were divided with half cheering for Saint Mary’s Huskies and the other for the Acadia Axemen. Both teams were stacked with talent, spirit and a hunger for victory.
Acadia took the lead early in the game, but Saint Mary’s fought back and defeated their opponents to win the CIAU title 99-91.
On Friday, Nov. 2, the 1977-78 Men’s Basketball Team was inducted into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, 40 years after a victory that will go down in history as one of the most exciting university sporting events in Canada.
All but a few of the team members returned to Halifax from all over Canada and the US to receive their honour at the Halifax Convention Centre.
They were presented with their honour by Owen Carrigan, who served as President of Saint Mary’s University that year and Doug Wright, a long-serving member of the Saint Mary’s Sport Hall of Fame Committee.
“It was the greatest game ever played at a college level in Canada,” said Coach Brian Heaney. “That CIAU national title took basketball to another plateau in Canada.”
Even 40 years later, players and fans remember that night. Saint Mary’s was the host team and seeded last. The magic ignited when they defeated the top-ranked Manitoba Bisons (92-81) who were favoured to win the championship. In the next round, they beat the University of Victoria Vikings with a score of 82-79.
That earned them a spot in the final against the Acadia Axemen. It was a grudge match and a showdown of hometown rivals, according to player Rick Plato.
“If you wrote it up for a movie you wouldn’t believe it. We were two power houses, tough, determined, confident skilled and talented,” he said.
With a victory and winning score of 99 points, they set the record for most points scored in a final game. That record was not broken until 2016.
“It was the time of our lives,” remembers player Tom Kappos. “We were a bunch of 18-year old Canadian kids, and this entire stadium was overflowing with people, fans, emotion.”
That game and season didn’t just change varsity basketball in Canada. It changed the lives of certain players too.
“It changed my life after being in the US,” said player Frank White. “People here were warm, welcoming, kind, they treated me with love and respect. Everyone had such a sense of purpose. In our hearts, we knew we were going to win that game.”
Player Ross Quackenbush, who later went on to coach men’s varsity basketball at Saint Mary’s, called that night the highlight of his career. Looking back at pictures, he laughs about the styles of 1978.
“Back then it was the time of short shorts and long hair. Now the shorts are long, and the hair is short.”
Whatever the fashion, that night was all about basketball. Player Ron McFarland received the Most Valuable Player award, finishing with 38 points.
The Saint Mary’s team were victorious in a game that will never be forgotten by either team or the 11,000 fans.
The Saint Mary’s team were: Ron Blommers, John Brown, Bruce Holmes, Derrick Lewis, Tom Kappos, Ron McFarland (MVP) Rick Plato, Ross Quackenbush, Art Screaton, Mike Solomon, Roger Tustanoff, Mark Vickers, and Frank White; (Coaches) Brian Burgess, Brian Heaney, and Willie Follette; (Managers) Hector Corkum, John Landry, Calvin Smith and Allan Wentworth; (Trainer) Richard Bishop; and, (Team Doctor) Dr. David Petrie Sr.