Unlikeliest of college basketball upsets spawns Maui Invitational
One of the first treats for basketball fans at the beginning of each holiday season is the convocation of some of college basketball’s elite teams on the Hawaiian island of Maui for the Maui Invitational Tournament. This season marks the 35th renewal of the tournament, which through the years has drawn basketball’s preeminent teams to a tiny gym in Maui to showcase the latest versions of their programs.
But many may not realize the birth of this tournament involved the unlikeliest of upsets—a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) school of less than 900 students taking down college basketball’s top-ranked team and arguably its best player. Without this game—played without any advance fanfare at the time—we may have missed out on some of the best college basketball played each season over the last three decades.
The University of Virginia basketball team arrived in Hawaii in December 1982 as the country’s No. 1-ranked team, fresh off winning two games in Tokyo against powerhouse Houston—featuring Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler—and the University of Utah. The Cavaliers were in Hawaii to take on the Chaminade Silverswords, an NAIA school located in Honolulu, whose basketball program was only in its seventh year of existence.
The idea behind mighty Virginia scheduling a game with Chaminade was that it would be a nice, relaxing pre-Christmas vacation for the team and a stopover on its way home from Japan. Also, the University of Hawaii, which Virginia wanted to play, could not fit the Cavaliers into its schedule, but Chaminade could. While Virginia entered the game undefeated at 8-0, the Silverswords were coming off of a loss to Wayland Baptist (Texas).
The storyline—if it even qualified as one—heading into the expected Virginia blowout was that the Cavaliers’ 7-foot-4 superstar Ralph Sampson was battling illness and not certain to play. He had missed the team’s two games in Japan, and Virginia had won anyway. Despite that uncertainty, the Silverswords were at best thought to be a light scrimmage for the Cavaliers. Nobody had any inkling that when the night was over, college basketball fans would still be talking about the game almost 36 years later.
A 24-year-old Michael Wilbon of the Washington Post was the lone reporter from the mainland United States at the game, and the reason he was really in town was to cover Maryland football in the inaugural Aloha Bowl. But he had first-hand knowledge of how sick Sampson really was, which is why he passed on his editor’s offer to take the night off. “Ralph was staying next door to me at the Hyatt on Waikiki Beach,” Wilbon said in a 2017 retrospective piece published in the Maui Jim Invitational tourney program. “He couldn’t do anything; he couldn’t even talk.”
So Wilbon told his editor, “I can’t (take the night off). Virginia is playing against this little school called Chaminade. And Ralph Sampson has the flu and he might not play. So we got to cover this game in case Virginia was to lose without Ralph.’”
The 7,500-seat capacity Neal Blaisdell Center Arena in Honolulu was less than half full for the December 23 matchup. Virginia had played the Silverswords on the same floor twice in the previous three seasons—winning both games easily. On this night, most of the fans were there, no doubt, to see Sampson. Just a few weeks prior, Sampson had outplayed Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing in a Virginia win and surely—if he played—would have his way with the Silverswords.
“So I get to the game and it was almost a disappointment when Ralph could play,” Wilbon said. “Because now you don’t have any drama.”
Or so he thought. Sampson did start for Virginia, but things didn’t go as easily as expected. Though the Silverswords’ tallest players were only 6’6”, Chaminade had success with a matchup zone defense that sagged in the middle and limited Sampson’s opportunities. The Cavaliers primarily relied on their perimeter game and, fortunately for Chaminade, weren’t blistering hot from the field. On the other side of the ball, they played lethargic defense. The ‘Swords stayed right with Virginia, and the two teams were tied at 43 at the half.
Even though the game was played without a shot clock, which was introduced in the college game three years later, the outclassed Silverswords did not hold the ball to run clock and shorten the game. Instead, they played an up-tempo game and used aggressiveness to their advantage.
Virginia grabbed a seven-point lead in the second half, but Chaminade eventually pulled even. The game was nip and tuck down the stretch until the final minute when Chaminade put it on ice, winning 77-72.
After the loss, the Cavaliers fell from their No. 1-ranking and would not ascend to No. 1 again until February 2018. In an incredible parallel the Cavaliers, the No. 1 ranked team in the country and No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, fell to the University of Maryland-Baltimore County on March 16, 2018, becoming the only No. 1 seed ever to lose to a No. 16 seed in tournament history.
One ‘Swords player who stood up to Sampson from the start was Tony Randolph, a familiar face from the Washington D.C. area whom Sampson had played against in high school. On this night, Randolph scored 19 points and the ‘Swords collectively held Sampson to 12 points. In fact, Sampson only scored two buckets while Randolph covered him.
As the clock hit all zeros, Chaminade players and fans frantically stormed the court. Silverswords’ player Richard Haenisch sat on the rim of one goal holding a cut-down net above his head. This was it: the biggest upset in the history of college basketball. Even Virginia coach Terry Holland had to admit it. As Wilbon noted in his post-game article, Holland nodded affirmatively when asked if this was the biggest upset in college basketball history. Wilbon also noted Holland was then asked, “Ever?” Holland replied, “It has to rank right up there.”
However, readers in the nation’s capital would not learn of Holland’s assessment until much later because Wilbon’s article on the game did not run until the Christmas Day edition. Wilbon recalled that when the game was tied at halftime, he called his editor in Washington, where it was already past 1 a.m., to tell him he might want to reserve space in the next day’s edition in case of the upset. “Just wait,” he pleaded with the editor. When the game was still tied with about 9 minutes left, Wilbon again called his bosses, and heard on the other end, “We heard Virginia go up seven points and we closed the paper.”
The banner headline in Honolulu the next morning read, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Chaminade.”
Once word of the shocking upset spread across the country, it was almost universally recognized as not only one of the college basketball’s greatest upsets, but as one of the greatest in all of sports. Fans all over the world collectively asked, “Who is Chaminade?”
To his credit, in the aftermath of defeat Holland recognized that Chaminade had an opportunity to capitalize on its newfound glory and suggested that it host an annual tournament and invite top teams to participate. So, in 1984 the Silverswords Invitational was born, and Virginia was one of the participants.
A few years later, the tournament moved to its current home in Maui, changed its name to the Maui Invitational and has been a staple of the early college basketball season for more than 30 years. Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Syracuse and others have all won the tournament multiple times. Even Chaminade has pulled a few more upsets over the years, including beating Stanford 71-63 in 1992 and Villanova 52-49 in 2003.
But as many great games and upsets as the Maui Invitational has given us, they all pale in comparison to that December night in 1982 when Chaminade shocked the world. H&A
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