Adkins' Sudden Arrival Lifted Virginia to an Emotional Win
March 5, 1998
It is hard enough to beat North Carolina with a full complement of players.
It is harder still when your playmaker is chugging along at game time on U.S. 29 between Charlottesville and Washington in a balky Austin-Healy.
But fortunately for Virginia, both the aging car and guard Paul Adkins had enough gas left to stun the Tar Heels in February 1959 in one of UVa’s most memorable victories.
Returning from Florida for the funeral of his grandfather, Adkins appeared at Memorial Gymnasium in mid-game on February 25, 1959 to spark a thrilling 69-68 upset of third-ranked North Carolina.
“I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” Adkins said from his home in Ocala, Fla. “I still have the basketball from that game in my closet.”
That February 39 years ago had been a bittersweet time for the 6-0 junior guard from Branchland, W.Va.
The Cavs’ floor general scored 17 points in an overtime victory at Wake Forest February 22, 1959. The next day, he was named to The Associated Press All-Big Six team, composed of the top players at the major schools in the Old Dominion.
But when his grandfather died, Adkins flew to Miami, Florida to attend the funeral.
“It was unexpected. I needed to be there,” Adkins recalled.
There had been reason to suspect the Cavs could turn the tables on the Tar Heels, who had beaten them eight straight times.
Coach Frank McGuire’s North Carolina squad was perhaps a bit over confident as it entered the contest at 17-2, including a 22-point defeat of UVa in Chapel Hill earlier in the season, the Cavs’ worst loss of the year.
Under coach Billy McCann, Virginia had gotten hot after a 2-11 start, winning six of its last eight.
Without Adkins, though, prospects for an upset seemed bleak. He missed the previous day’s practice because of the family death, and was nowhere to be seen at tip-off time at Memorial Gymnasium.
Led by forward Doug Moe and guard York Larese, North Carolina jumped out to an early 13-9 lead.
From a distance, Adkins knew exactly what was happening. He had anticipated being on time for the game, but his flight from Florida to Washington was delayed for two hours, putting him at National Airport at about 6 p.m.
One of his fraternity brothers met him there in the Austin-Healy, “which heated up every time you got above 55 miles an hour,” Adkins laughed. But he was able to listen to the inaugural stages of the game on the car radio.
The packed crowd of 4,000 gave Adkins a rousing ovation as he entered the arena and took his place on the Cavalier sideline. McCann later said he intended to sit Adkins out for the rest of the first half. But about six minutes into the game, McCann relented and inserted Adkins into his customary spot at guard.
The strategy did not pay immediate dividends. Carolina opened up a 26-14 advantage before the Cavs rallied. A John Haner field goal late in the first half gave UVa a 36-34 advantage at intermission.
The second half was a nip-and-tuck affair, with no more than four points separating the teams. Virginia took a 65-62 lead with 2:31 left before Harvey Salz scored to tighten the lead to one.
Then it was Adkins’ turn. He responded with a pair of free throws to stake the Cavs to a 67-64 edge and converted a clinching layup with 1:01 remaining. The Tar Heels missed three heaves in the last 22 seconds and the Cavs claimed an emotional win.
In all, Adkins tallied 19 points. Center Herb Busch had 20 points and 15 rebounds to help the effort as Virginia outshot UNC 44.4 percent to 37.0 percent.
The Wahoos also claimed the advantage on the backboards, out-rebounding Carolina 49.34.
The crowd of 4,000 fans spilled on the court at the end, carrying Adkins and Busch off the floor. In the locker room, the players tossed McCann into the shower.
The Cavs finished a respectable 11-14 and 6-8 in league play. More than that, they provided Adkins, a second-team All-ACC pick, with a special set of memories.
“I still have some scrapbooks of my career at UVa. They’re getting pretty beat up, but come March madness time, I take them out and look at the Carolina and Duke scores,” Adkins said. “There were some nice things written about me and that meant a lot to me.”
This story was written by Steven Johnson for Cavalier GameDay. It is reprinted with the permission of the University of Virginia Athletic Department and Virginia Sports Marketing.