HONOLULU – It’s called the “biggest upset in college basketball history.” Merv Lopes believes his team’s shocking victory 25 years ago is more than that.
“It’s more of a miracle than an upset,” the former Chaminade coach said. “Can it happen? No way.”
But it did. Chaminade 77, No. 1 Virginia 72.
On Dec. 23, 1982, an 800-student NAIA school that didn’t even have its own gymnasium defeated the nation’s No. 1 team led by 7-foot-4 center Ralph Sampson, who was en route to his third straight national player of the year award.
“How can you stop a guy who was 7-foot-whatever?” Lopes asked. “At that time, 25 years ago, that was a monster.”
The game was supposed to be a pit stop in paradise for Virginia, which was returning home from playing two games in Japan. At 8-0, the Cavaliers seemed on their way to a return trip to the Final Four.
Even without an ill Sampson in Tokyo, Virginia beat Utah and an explosive Houston squad led by Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.
Before traveling to Asia, Virginia won by 13 points at Duke and beat Georgetown and Patrick Ewing in a matchup of superstar centers billed “The Game of the Decade.”
The Silverswords, meanwhile, were coming off a loss to Wayland Baptist.
Nobody believed Chaminade had a chance. The tiny Catholic school, which was founded in Honolulu in 1955 at a site that served as a military hospital during World War II, still uses a gym it rents from a high school.
“It certainly remains a great story and a great inspiration,” Chaminade President Sue Wesselkamper said. “It proves that it is possible to win against odds if you work hard and play well.”
Chaminade was to be renamed the University of Honolulu days after the game, but the school kept its name because of all the attention it received. The win also has helped with recruiting and spawned the Maui Invitational, considered the nation’s top preseason tournament.
Lopes, 75 and retired on the Big Island, is still baffled at how his “put-together” team of mostly non-recruited players won.
“I couldn’t tell you how or what. It just happened,” he said. “They had no fear. They just believed.”
Chaminade, now an NCAA Division II program, was playing in the NAIA at the time with a paltry athletic budget. Lopes was paid $2,000 for the season as the school’s head coach, which was a part-time gig. His recruiting budget: $34.
At 6-7 and 210 pounds, the lanky Tony Randolph was Chaminade’s starting center charged with guarding Sampson, who was 9 inches taller. Virginia had small forwards taller than Randolph.
“Everyone played bigger than their size,” said the 45-year-old Randolph, who lives in Ewa Beach and works with troubled youths for the state. “Everyone’s heart was bigger than what you’d see on paper.”
Randolph finished with 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting and held Sampson in check, earning him the nickname of “Miracle Man.”
The Silverswords had a simple strategy: converge on the Virginia star every time he touched the ball.
Lopes instructed his players to harass Sampson to force a pass, a bad shot or a turnover. Sampson had spent most of his time in Tokyo in his hotel room recovering from pneumonia. He returned to the court against Chaminade and had nine points and 17 rebounds.
“They had a good perimeter team, but that night, they didn’t hit it,” Lopes said. “They kept shooting, and they kept missing.”
Former Cavaliers coach Terry Holland remembers outrebounding the Silverswords by about 20, but his team couldn’t score.
“We played hard, and they did a good job of taking away the inside game and daring us to shoot outside,” Holland said in an e-mail.
The game was tied at 43 at halftime and was close throughout. Then came the dunk heard across the islands.
Tim Dunham’s alley-oop dunk in Sampson’s face was the play that made the Silverswords, and every one else at Blaisdell Arena, believe a major upset was coming.