The Seawolves made history on a Wednesday.
It was Dec. 28, 1988.
Just four days before ringing in the new year, the UAA men’s basketball team put No. 2-ranked Michigan through the ringer at the Utah Classic.
The Seawolves executed their stall-ball strategy flawlessly and shot 63% from the floor to fuel a stunning 70-66 upset victory over the eventual NCAA champions in Salt Lake City.
More like Upset City.
Having a NCAA Division II team from Alaska – Alaska??! – knock off a seemingly invincible, undefeated Wolverines squad stacked with pro-ready talent sent shock waves throughout the college basketball world.
No way a D2 team from Alaska beat the No. 2 team in the country. This was Michigan, after all; a Big Ten Conference power that started four future NBA players in Glen Rice, Terry Mills, Loy Vaught and Rumeal Robinson.
“I didn’t believe it would happen, but it happened,” Michigan coach Bill Frieder told the Associated Press after the game.
ESPN made UAA’s upset the lead story on SportsCenter that night, which helped the news spread like wildfire.
“I remember watching a video of the game and getting nervous at that time, thinking, I knew what the outcome was going to be, but you almost couldn’t fathom what just happened,” Tim McDiffett told the Alaska News Source in 2014, when the moment was inducted into the Alaska Sports Hall of Fame.
Michigan was 11-0 and beating opponents by 33 points a game going into the first round of the two-day Utah Classic. The Wolverines were coming off a 121-72 beating of Youngstown State.
UAA was 10-2 with both losses coming at the Great Alaska Shootout – 91-84 to Kansas and 83-72 to No. 15 Florida; the Seawolves beat Iona 71-70 on Day 3 of the tournament. Still, they weren’t in Anchorage anymore.
Michigan’s run-and-fun offense averaged 100 points a game and ran teams off the floor, so UAA coach Ron Abegglen called for his players to slow it way down. He wanted to take the air out of the ball, milk the 45-second shot clock and drive the Wolverines crazy.
It worked as UAA trailed only 36-32 at halftime.
“I remember listening to the game on the radio, and we hung in the game and hung in the game, and I can remember thinking it was great that they were giving them a game for so long,” McDiffett said.
But still, this was Michigan. Cinderella’s curfew was the second half, right? If so, nobody told the Seawolves.
Jerry Sommer’s 3-pointer gave UAA a 45-44 lead at the 14:54 mark. Michael Johnson’s 3-pointer pushed the cushion to 61-54 with 6:43 left, the Seawolves’ last field goal of the game.
You know it was UAA’s night when Rice – the Big Ten Player of the Year and an 83% free-throw shooter that season – missed three straight foul shots with Michigan trying to cut into a 63-60 deficit. The Seawolves didn’t flinch at crunch time, draining five straight free throws as the lead swelled to 68-60.
THROWBACK TUESDAY to 12/28/88 Greatest Upset in College Basketball History. D2 UAA defeats #2/eventual National Champs Michigan & 5 future NBA guys on neutral court 2500 miles from home. UM victory margin was 33 pts. Only non conf. loss @smcollegehoops @DIIHoops @Division2Hoops pic.twitter.com/byy7kOWftD
— UAA Men's Basketball (@UAAMBB) May 6, 2020
The next day in the tournament, UAA lost to Utah 75-68 in the title game while Michigan mauled Holy Cross 100-66 for third place.
The Seawolves went on to finish that season 21-9 and missed the postseason. Meanwhile, Michigan went on to win the NCAA championship with an 80-79 OT win over Seton Hall at the Kingdome in Seattle.
“Our team, and certainly the university, was rooting for Michigan because that was the team that we had beaten and they went on to win the national championship,” McDiffett said. “Then I think it started to become, ‘Wow, that was a huge victory’ and I think it meant more than at the time (of the upset).”
The victory over Michigan remains UAA’s crown jewel in the program’s treasure chest of upsets, surpassing Shootout wins over Missouri in 1985, Texas in 1986 and Wake Forest in 1993.
Not only was the Michigan win on a neutral court, but the Wolverines were ranked No. 2 in the country. None of those Shootout opponents were nationally ranked.
Still, outside of Alaska, it’s not considered the greatest upset in college basketball history.
That distinction belongs to Chaminade, a NAIA team from Hawaii that upset No. 1 Virginia and 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson 77-72 in Honolulu in 1982.
40 years ago today, the biggest upset in the history of college basketball took place. Relive Chaminade's improbable win over No. 1 Virginia, thanks to the brilliant writing of Mike Lopresti. https://t.co/IGX5BLNbVE
— David Worlock (@DavidWorlock) December 23, 2022
Exactly one year earlier, on Dec. 28, 1987, the Seawolves took on another No. 2-ranked team in Kentucky when they traveled to Rupp Arena for the final stop on a three-game road trip, which started with back-to-back heartbreak defeats in Las Vegas – 85-84 to Creighton and 68-67 to Tennessee Tech.
UAA lost 100-58 to a Kentucky team that featured Cedrick Jenkins, Winston Bennett, Rex Chapman and Sean Sutton, the son of the team’s coach Eddie Sutton.
Johnson led the way with 15 points while Vern Robateau (Chugiak) added eight points, Dale Bartley (Lathrop) had seven points and eight rebounds, and Mike Killpatrick (West) furnished four points and five rebounds.
UAA went on to win 13 of its final 18 games, marching all the way to the 1989 NCAA Tournament title game.
The Seawolves earned a postseason berth by virtue of winning the Great Northwest Conference title and then dispatched Cal State Bakersfield (89-82, OT) and Cal State East Bay (72-67) in the West Regional. From there, UAA beat Ferris State 97-85 in the national quarterfinals before a standing-room only crowd of 3,400 at West High School. (I was there as a 15-year-old fan).
That win propelled the Seawolves to Springfield, Massachusetts, where they beat Troy 77-72 in the semifinals and then lost 75-72 to UMass-Lowell.
It all ties into Dec. 28.
On This Day Dec. 28
UAA Basketball History
1978 – W106-84 College of the Ozarks
1979 – W76-72 Samford
1981 – W63-55 Drexel
1982 – L102-68 Alabama-Birmingham
1984 – L98-71 New Mexico
1987 – L100-58 #2 Kentucky
1988 – W70-66 #2 Michigan
1990 – L93-69 #11 Pittsburgh
1991 – L92-68 Chattanooga
1998 – W80-72 Southern Methodist
2001 – L78-64 Angelo State
2006 – W79-68 #19 BYU-Hawaii
2007 – W71-45 Ferris State
2022 – W108-36 Portland Bible College