The opening tip of the 1977 NCAA Tournament national semifinal between UNC Charlotte and eventual national champion Marquette. (Courtesy Charlotte 49ers Athletics)

MADNESS MOMENTS | Cedric Maxwell led first Cinderella to Big Dance in 1977

During the 31 days of March, we feature some of the greatest moments from the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament in the history of ASN's family of schools. Today: Charlotte and Cedric "Cornbread" Maxwell.

For most of March 1977, UNCC stood for UNC Cinderella.

UNC Charlotte's charmed underdogs crashed the NCAA Tournament and reached the Final Four.

The Big Dance was smaller then, with 32 teams compared to today's 68. And smaller schools had reached the Final Four before, most notably Jacksonville University led by 7-1 Artis Gilmore in 1970.

But Charlotte can claim to be the NCAA Tournament's first Cinderella, getting to the Final Four in only its seventh Division I season. It was actually UNCC's second consecutive Final Four appearance — the 49ers reached the National Invitation Tournament championship game in 1976.

Charlotte went 21-5 in 1975-76 but missed out on the NCAA Tournament, so head coach Lee Rose flew to New York to appeal to the NIT committee. The 49ers received the last bid, then defeated San Francisco, Oregon and North Carolina State before losing 71-67 to Kentucky in the final.

“That got our name on the map,” Rose told the Associated Press in 2007. “And they loved Cedric in New York. Once they got Cornbread attached to his name, it just added more fuel.”

"Cornbread" was Cedric Maxwell, UNCC's first All-American who had been named NIT MVP in 1976.

He picked up the nickname from UNCC teammate Melvin Watkins after they saw Cornbread, Earl and Me. The 1975 movie is about a 12-year-old traumatized by the murder of his friend, a star basketball player. Watkins decided that Maxwell looked like the lead character and started calling him "Cornbread."

Opponents called him unstoppable.

Maxwell led the 49ers with 22.2 points — before the 3-pointer — and 12.1 rebounds while shooting 64% from the field as the 49ers won the first Sun Belt Conference championship and automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. His 690 points remain a school single-season record.

His personality also helped UNCC's "Mean Green" stay loose.

“No one was like Max,” teammate Kevin King recalled in 2007. “I remember we were running down the court and he tripped me — during the game.”

In the NCAA Tournament, the 49ers tripped Central Michigan 91-86 in overtime, Syracuse 81-59 and top-ranked Michigan 75-68 in the Mideast Regional final.

UNCC advanced to the Final Four, where the 49ers played Marquette on March 26, 1977 — the sports moment judged the greatest in school history. Though it ended in defeat, the 49ers came within three seconds of possibly winning the national championship.

After Maxwell hit a shot to tie the game at 49, Marquette's Butch Lee flung a length-of-the-court inbounds pass to Bo Ellis. But the ball deflected off his hands to Jerome Whitehead.

Maxwell partially blocked Whitehead's attempted dunk. The ball hit the backboard and bounced off the rim before falling through the net as time expired for a 51-49 victory.

Maxwell said Whitehead should have been called for goaltending. The referees conferred before ruling the basket good, sending Marquette to the finals against North Carolina.

Marquette won, 67-59, in head coach Al McGuire's last game.

UNCC lost the consolation game 106-94 to UNLV, but Maxwell finished as the tournament's leading scorer with 123 points. He went on to an 11-year NBA career, earning NBA Finals MVP honors for the champion Boston Celtics in 1981.

His first national glory came with the 49ers, whose success in 1977 was credited with spiking enrollment and approval for financing a nursing school.

“A school a lot of people didn’t even know existed was so close to playing a team that wouldn’t even allow us to play them — the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill,” Maxwell told the Associated Press 30 years later. “You think back at how close a small school like UNC Charlotte was to winning the whole thing.”

UNCC — now just Charlotte — and the NCAA Tournament haven't been the same since.

Video courtesy of Charlotte 49ers Athletics

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