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A look back at Cinderellas

So far this year in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, four teams defied the odds and beat the big boys to land in the Sweet 16. Wichita State, Oregon, LaSalle and Florida Gulf Coast are living the dream, hopeful to move forward and advance to the Final Four.

They have captured the nation in a variety of ways, perhaps none more than Florida Gulf Coast.

Here, a school of 13,500 students that became a four-year institution in 1999 is now playing with the best in the nation. Like FGCU, Cinderella comes in all types of shapes and sizes. A trip down memory lane shows us the many shapes and sizes of Cinderella’s slipper.

1- Loyola Marymount 1990 - Lost in Regional Final to eventual champion, UNLV

Perhaps the definition of Cinderella, the basketball world went silent when former Lions star Hank Gathers dropped dead of a heart attack during the West Coast Conference Tournament. The team opted to play on in memory of Gathers and the No. 11 seeded team knocked out New Mexico State and then thumped the defending national champions, Michigan, 149-115. In the Sweet 16, the Lions nipped Alabama 62-60, to set up a date with the eventual national champions, UNLV in the Elite Eight. UNLV was just too much, 131-101. Bo Kimble, Loyola Marymount’s floor leader, shot four free throws left-handed in honor of his friend, Gathers. He made them all.

2- Penn 1979 - Made the Final Four, lost to eventual champion, Michigan State Spartans and Earvin “Magic” Johnson

The East Regional’s No. 9 seed, Penn defeated Jim Valvano’s pesky Iona team 73-69 behind Tony Price’s 27 points to advance to play North Carolina in Raleigh. James Salters hit a key free throw to preserve the Penn victory 72-71. Penn then beat East Coast powers Syracuse and then St. John’s to earn a trip to the Final Four. Tony Price was named Eastern Regional MVP. The road ended with a 101-67 defeat to Michigan State.

3- Cal State Fullerton 1978 - Lost in Regional Final to Arkansas 61-58

The little team that could, Cal State Fullerton captured the country’s heart - a group of self-proclaimed no-names who won the Pacific Coast Conference championship to earn entrance into the NCAA Tournament. “Cal State Who?”, came from behind to knock off a ranked New Mexico team with future Laker superstar, Michael Cooper. Next up was San Francisco who featured all-time future Knick Bill Cartwright. Keith Anderson drained a shot at the buzzer to take down the Dons and Cal State Fullerton advanced to the regional finals versus Arkansas. With the clock winding down, Keith Anderson drove down the lane for the game winning attempt however in controversial fashion the ball was dislodged via slap with no foul call, as Chase Jim Counce put the lay-up in at the buzzer for the final score.

4- UNC Charlotte 1977 - Made the Final Four, lost by two to national champion Marquette

Thirty-six years ago, UNC Charlotte broke through to the Final Four. The Sun Belt champions were led by Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell. After an opening round victory against Central Michigan, the 49ers took down perennial powers Syracuse and Michigan before falling to the National Champion, Coach Al McGuire’s Marquette team by two.

Catching up with…Melvin Watkins

247Sports had an opportunity to catch-up with Melvin Watkins, star guard from that Charlotte team and current Associate Head Coach of Arkansas.

247Sports- Were you guys considered a Cinderella story that year?

Watkins- “Winning the Sun Belt was a challenge, the year prior we thought we reached new heights by making the NIT and advancing all the way to New York to play in the NIT final.
In 1977, we felt good about ourselves, we knew we had a good basketball team. What we accomplished was beyond Cinderella. No one could have imagined it, a tiny school of about 6,000 students. It was an amazing feat.”

247Sports- What was it like facing a heavily favored Michigan team to get to the Final Four?

Watkins- “Michigan was favored to win the championship. We walked into Rupp Arena and usually before the game, opponents would nod at each other, but what stood out was Michigan walked by us like we didn’t belong there. Our guys were motivated after that.”

247Sports- Tell us about the match-up with Marquette and Butch Lee?

Watkins- “Butch Lee was the national player of the year, he had all the notoriety, however we were naive enough to think we could get the job done- We respect but didn’t fear”.

247Sports- How is different for teams today playing in the Tourney than it was for you guys?

Watkins- “Today, the media coverage and the Internet, you know everything about teams today. Back then, only a handful of program would be on National TV such as Michigan”.

247Sports- Do you see any similarities with any of these teams in the NCAA Tournament with your UNC Charlotte team?

Watkins- “Florida Gulf Coast reminds me of us. They are confident and they are looking like they are having a lot of fun. That makes for a dangerous team.”

Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to 247Sports.com’s coverage of college basketball and he is a frequent guest on radio shows across the nation. Klein can be followed at @LeighAlanKlein

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