Top 23 Final Four performances by future Celtics

Note: this list is not a ranking of best to worst.

By Cort Reynolds

With the Final Four upon us, it seems like a good time to recount some of the best games ever recorded on college basketball's biggest stage by future Celtics. Two incredible performances immediately jump to mind.

1. Bill Walton:, who was the Sixth Man of the Year on perhaps the greatest team in NBA history, the 67-15 Celtics of 1986-87, enjoyed a record-setting night in the first Monday night NCAA final back in 1973.

Despite playing just 33 minutes due first to foul trouble and then because of a sprained ankle in the waning minutes of the game, Walton cemented his second straight tournament Most Outstanding Player award with a display for the ages.

Big Bill made an incredible 21 of 22 field goal attempts to lead UCLA to an 87-66 win over Memphis State en route to a championship game-record 44 points. His outburst broke the record of 42 points set by former Bruin guard Gail Goodrich in the 1965 finals.

Ironically, Walton made just two of five free free throws in his record outing, but he added 13 rebounds to lead UCLA to its unprecedented seventh straight NCAA crown.

The year before as a sophomore, Walton also turned in a similarly efficient performance against Louisville in the semifinals. Facing former UCLA assistant Denny Crum, the man who recruited Walton out of San Diego for John Wooden's Bruins, Walton shredded the first-year Cardinal coach's squad.

Walton canned 11 of 13 field goal tries and hit on 11 o12 free throws for a game-high 33 points. He added 21 rebounds for good measure as UCLA spanked the Cards, 96-77. In the finals, Walton added 24 points and 20 rebounds to pace the Bruins past upstart Florida State, 81-76.

The big redhead also tallied 29 points and 18 rebounds in the 1974 national semis vs. North Carolina State in a much-anticipated showdown between the nation's top two teams and players, with Walton facing off against jumping jack David Thompson and 7-2 Tom Burleson.

But after leading by a seemingly insurmountable seven in the second overtime (iwith no shot clock or three-point line), the Bruins inexplicably folded and had their incredible 38-game NCAA tournament win streak snapped by the Wolfpack in a double OT epic, 80-77.

2. Larry Bird: In 1979, Larry Bird put on one of the greatest shooting performances in the history of the Final Four. Facing a strong DePaul club led by Mark Aguirre, undefeated Indiana State needed all of Larry Legend's 35 points to stave off the Blue Demons 76-74 in the semifinals.

All Bird did was connect on 16 of 19 shots from the field and three of four foul shots while pulling down 16 rebounds and dishing out nine assists, just missing a triple-double by one helper. His monster effort lifted ISU to a 33-0 record, making them the last team to make it to the national finals undefeated and matching the uniform number on Larry's powder blue jersey.

Unfortunately, his deadly shooting eye deserted him two nights later in the altitude of Utah amid the swarming Michigan State zone defense.

3. Bill Russell: In 1956, Bill Russell led San Francisco to its second straight NCAA title with a dominating effort against Iowa. All Russ did was score 26 points and yank down 27 rebounds to pace the Dons to an 83-71 victory. In the semis, he was “held” to 17 points and 23 caroms as USF mauled SMU, 86-68.

4. K.C. Jones: Celtic defensive ballhawk and future coach K.C. Jones also had a great game in the 1955 NCAA finals for San Francisco. Jones, who won eight NBA titles as a player and two more as a head coach, also captured two titles in college with Russell at San Francisco.

Against defending champion LaSalle in the 1955 title round, the 6-1 Jones fired in a game-high 24 points on 10-23 shooting from the floor and 4-4 accuracy at the charity stripe to lead USF to a 77-63 win over the Explorers and Tom Gola. Russell added 23 points. Due to an eligibility issue, Jones was not allowed to play in the 1956 tournament yet USF still repeated as champions.

5. Clyde Lovellette: In 1952, future Celtic/Laker center and Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette put the capper on one of the greatest seasons in NCAA history. The burly 6-9 hook-shooter from Terre Haute, Indiana became the first and only man to win the NCAA scoring title and the national title in the same season.

After averaging 28.6 points a game to top the nation, Lovellette fired in 33 points in the NCAA semis to lead the Jayhawks to a 74-55 win over Santa Clara. Then in the title game, he again torched the nets for 33 points on 12-25 shooting from the field and 9-11 from the line. He also added 17 rebounds as Kansas won its first NCAA crown over St. John's, 80-63.

6. John Havlicek: All-time Celtic great and franchise leading scorer John Havlicek made it to the NCAA finals in all three years of his college eligibility from 1960-62 (freshmen were not allowed to play varsity then) at Ohio State, compiling a gaudy 78-6 record.

Although Hondo played in six Final Four contests, winning four, his best game came in the 1962 semifinals vs. Wake Forest. Havlicek tossed in 25 points on 9-16 shooting (7-9 FTs) and snared 16 rebounds to lead the Buckeyes to an 84-68 victory over the Demon Deacons. Incidentally, a future announcer named Billy Packer tossed in 17 points for Wake in a losing cause.

Unfortunately for Hondo, OSU standout Jerry Lucas injured his knee late in the win and was subpar in the finals as the Bucks lost to in-state rival Cincinnati for the second year in a row in the championship round, 71-59. Havlicek was held to 11 points and grabbed nine caroms.

7. Ron Bonham: Celtic mid-1960s sharpshooter Ron Bonham netted 10 points for Cincinnati in that 1962 finals win, but his best Final Four showing came the next season in 1963 as the Bearcats aimed for the first three-peat in NCAA history.

Cincinnati held a 15-point lead in the second half against Loyola of Chicago, but went into a stall too soon, lost its momentum and ultimately the lead. The Ramblers tied it at the end of regulation and then pulled off the upset in overtime when Vic Rouse tipped in a shot at the buzzer, 60-58.

Bonham led all scorers with 22 points on eight of 16 field goal sniping and a perfect 6-6 foul shooting accuracy in the gut-wrenching defeat.

Tom "Satch" Sanders, #43
8. Tom Sanders: Tom “Satch” Sanders, a defensive standout and a fixture for the Celtics at forward during their title years of the 1960s on into the early '70s, saw his New York University club eliminated 76-54 by Havlicek's OSU squad in the 1960 semis, despite 22 boards by Sanders.

In the consolation game, Cincinnati and Oscar Robertson (32 points) blew out NYU 95-71. But Satch acquitted himself well with 27 points (11-23 FGs) and 11 rebounds.

9. Mel Counts: Olympian and 1964 Celtic first round pick seven-footer Mel Counts led Oregon State to the 1963 Final Four. But the Beavers were dismantled 80-46 by the Bearcat juggernaut in the semis. Counts was the only Beaver to score more than five points as he tallied 20 markers and snagged nine caroms.

In the consolation game, Counts added 25 points and 18 boards but OSU was walloped by Duke, 85-63. Incidentally, one of Mel's starting teammates on the Beaver squad was Heisman Award-winning quarterback Terry Baker, a guard who shot just 3-20 from the field in the two State losses. After struggling as Russell's backup, Counts went on to better NBA days with the Lakers and Suns.

10. Cedric Maxwell: In the late 1970s, a versatile future Celtic Finals MVP forward led an unheralded small school overshadowed by big-name traditional powers in its own state to the Final Four.

But no, it wasn't Larry Bird in this case. In 1977 Cedric Maxwell, who also wore number 33 in college, led little-known 17th-ranked North Carolina-Charlotte (now known as just Charlotte) to the 1977 Final Four in Atlanta's Omni.

The 49ers upset top-ranked Michigan in the regional finals 75-68 as Cornbread dominated with 25 points and 13 rebounds. In a nailbiting semifinal, Charlotte took Marquette to the wire.

With the score tied 49-49 in the final seconds, Warrior center Jerome Whitehead took a fullcourt pass and laid in the winner at the buzzer, but only after the play was disputed for several minutes afterward.

Cedric Maxwell wearing 33 for UNCC
Maxwell led UNCC with 17 points on efficient five of six field goal shooting and seven of nine sniping at the foul line, and he also grabbed a team-high dozen rebounds in the low-scoring contest. The bitter, controversial loss prevented Charlotte from facing in-state foe North Carolina in the finals, which Marquette won 67-59 in Al McGuire's swansong.

In the consolation game, Cornbread poured in 30 points (9-15 FGs, 12-13 FTs) and snared 16 rebounds only to see his 49ers lose to UNLV in a shootout, 106-94.

11. Rick Robey: The next year, a future teammate of Maxwell and Bird helped Kentucky win its fifth NCAA crown. Burly 6-11 center Rick Robey poured in 20 points and yanked down 11 rebounds to help UK beat Cinderella Duke (which started an all-freshman frontline) in the finals, 94-88.

Robey, who played for Boston from 1978-83 and averaged a career-high 11.5 ppg in 1979-80 during pal Larry Bird's rookie season, drained eight of 11 shots from the floor and four of six at the line in 32 efficient minutes vs. Duke.

12. Pervis Ellison: In 1986, Pervis “Never Nervous” Ellison was a slender and relatively unknown 6-9 center for Louisville. In the championship game vs. Duke, Ellison poured in 25 points on 10-14 shooting, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked two shots to lead the Cardinals to a thrilling 72-69 victory. He became the first freshman in 42 years to be named Final Four MOP and was the number one pick in the 1989 NBA draft by the Kings.

Later in five unproductive injury-plagued seasons from 1994-2000 with Boston, the oft-injured Ellison became known as Pervis “How About Some Service” Ellison.

13. Tony Delk: Kentucky guard Tony Delk, who played 89 games for Boston from 2001-03, was the 1996 Final Four MOP after pouring in 24 points on seven treys in the finals win over Syracuse. In the semis, Delk led UK again with 20 points as the Wildcats knocked off Massachusetts by seven.

14. Ron Mercer: Another future Celtic under Rick Pitino, who brought him to Lexington as well, freshman Ron Mercer came off the bench to perhaps make the difference with 20 points in the 1996 finals to stave off an upset bid by undermanned Syracuse. Mercer also netted 19 points in the 1997 semis to lead UK past Minnesota, 78-69.

15. Antoine Walker: Future Celtic gunner Antoine Walker also scored 14 in the 81-74 UMass victory, and added 11 in the 76-67 finals win over the Orange to go along with nine caroms and four assists.

16. Derek Smith: Derek “the Rock” Smith scored 13 points, played strong defense and grabbed eight rebounds to help Louisville beat Iowa 80-72 in the 1980 NCAA semifinals. The 6-6 Smith scored nine in their finals win two days later over UCLA, and was a key player on the early 1990s Celtics, helping them beat Indiana in their memorable first round matchup before tragically dying at 34 in 1996.

Ironically, 30 years after Derek helped Louisville win the NCAA title in Indianapolis, his son Nolan Smith started at guard on the 2010 Duke squad that also won the championship – in Indianapolis.

Pictured here with UCLA head coach John Wooden,
Curtis Rowe, Sidney Wicks and Steve Petterson
(left to right)
17. Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe: Late 1970s Celtic forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe also won three NCAA titles together at UCLA from 1969-71.

Rowe tallied 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Bruins in their barnburner 1969 semifinal 85-82 win over Drake, one of the closest Bruin Final Four wins of the Wooden era. He then added a dozen points and 12 boards in the 92-72 Bruin blowout of Purdue in the finals.

In 1970 it was Sidney's time to shine. Wicks scored 22 points on 10-12 shooting and snared 16 caroms to pace UCLA to a 93-77 win over New Mexico State in the semis. Rowe contributed 15 points and 15 boards.

In the finals, the 6-9 Wicks blocked multiple shots by 7-2 Artis Gilmore, scored 17 points and pulled down a game-high 18 rebounds to win Final Four MOP honors as the Bruins whipped Jacksonville, 80-69. The smooth Rowe tallied 19 points and grabbed eight boards.

Gilmore, who finished his long Hall of Fame career as a backup on the 1987-88 Celtics, tallied 29 points and grabbed 21 rebounds for the Dolphins in their 91-83 semifinal win over St. Bonaventure in the 1970 semis. Unfortunately, the Bonnies played without injured star center Bob Lanier, who tore a knee ligament near the end of their elite eight win over Villanova when future Celtic player/coach (and Piston teammate) Chris Ford collided with him.

In 1971, Rowe and Wicks combined for 37 points and 23 rebounds as UCLA beat Kansas in the semis 68-60. The duo then went out winners again by taking down Villanova 68-62 in the finals although neither scored double figures.

18. Arnie Risen: Hall of Fame 6-9 center Arnie Risen was a member of the first Celtic title team in 1957 in his penultimate pro season. In 1945, he led Ohio State to the NCAA semis well before the final four was called the “Final Four” and only eight teams competed in the tournament.

In the semifinals, Risen netted a game-high 26 points but OSU lost to eventual runner-up NYU 70-65. Risen also led the Buckeyes to the NCAA semifinals in 1944, where they fell to Dartmouth 60-53 despite 21 Risen markers.

19. Todd Day: Former Celtic swingman Todd Day fired in 27 points for Arkansas in the 1990 national semifinals, but the Razorbacks lost to Duke by a 97-83 count.

20. Eric Montross: In 1993, Indianapolis native Eric Montross was a powerful 7-0 center for the national champion North Carolina Tar Heels. In the semis and finals that year, Montross muscled his way to 39 points on 14-25 shooting accuracy, including a 23-point night in a 78-68 win over Kansas in the semis. The top Celtic pick in 1994, he made the NBA all-rookie team in 1995 with Boston before tailing off.

21. Steve Downing: In 1973, 6-9 Indiana workhorse Steve Downing led the Hoosiers to the Final Four in just Bob Knight's second season and became Boston's top draft pick later that year. In the semis vs. UCLA, Downing outscored Bill Walton 26 to 14 but fouled out late in a controversial collision with the big redhead. UCLA went on to rally late for a 70-59 win.

In the consolation game 97-79 win over Ernie DiGregorio and Providence, Downing netted 21 points and snagged 14 boards.

22. Ernie DiGregorio: “Ernie D” fired in 32 points and doled out seven assists for the Friars in the 1973 semis, but Providence fell to Memphis State 98-85 when Marvin Barnes went down early with a knee injury.

23. Kevin Stacom: In the third-place loss to the Hoosiers, feisty future Celtic backup guard Kevin Stacom tossed in a game-high 29 points while Ernie added 17 with seven assists.

Cort Reynolds is a writer with 17 years of experience as a sports editor, newspaper editor, and sports writer. He also was a college sports information director at his alma mater for five years and is a lifelong player, student and historian of the game. You can contact him at to comment or ask him questions.