The stands filled early on championship night in Evansville, Ind. These were the NCAA's small colleges playing for their national title, and one of the finalists, Kentucky Wesleyan, really was small (1,183 students). There was nothing small, however, about a big-hearted rooter who greeted the Panthers as they ran out on the floor Friday night. As obvious as the nose on W. C. Fields' face, he stood at courtside in a shiny gray suit and let each passing Wesleyan player slap his upturned hands.
"I'm Harold P. Hamilton, the school president," the man said, "and I'm the most ardent cheerleader the team has. If you watch me, you'll see me leading cheers over here in a second."
Harold P. Hamilton was as good as his word, but why he was so enthusiastic before this game against Southwest Missouri State College was something of a mystery. Southwest, with an enrollment about eight times that of Wesleyan, had moved comfortably through the eight-team, three-day tournament to the finals. President Hamilton's hand slappers meanwhile had looked like the skinniest, sleepiest, sloppiest team in town. The Panthers were fooling around, winning games on shoestrings and wishbones, and their young coach, Bob Daniels, was getting permanent creases in his brow. "This team puzzles me," he said. "We haven't played a good game yet and here we are in the finals. Somebody must be looking out for us."
There was no excuse for Wesleyan's unchampionship behavior. Inexperience? Back from last season's national champions were four starters. And one of them, senior forward George Tinsley, has been hanging around Wesleyan since World War II—at least it seems that way. Hostile area? Wesleyan did not have to play a tournament game more than 35 miles from home. The regionals were held on Wesleyan's home floor in Owensboro and the finals a few hundred thousand dribbles up the road in Evansville. A Wesleyan lad actually bounced a ball all the way from Owensboro to Evansville, nearly a five-hour trip by sneaker, only to blow his crip shot when he finally reached the floor at Roberts Municipal Stadium.
March 24, 1969
The Panthers had to use all their experience and all Daniels' guile to maneuver past previously unbeaten Alcorn A&M in the regional, but then American International of Springfield, Mass. really had them tied to the railroad tracks in last week's semifinals. With no time showing on the scoreboard and only a tick of the clock left to play in overtime, American's Bob Rutherford was on the foul line with a bonus opportunity. A miss would give Wesleyan the game, but one successful toss would tie it and two would win. He missed, and the final buzzer sounded as Wesleyan's John Duncan grabbed the rebound.
Southwest Missouri, one of five colleges located in Springfield, was having no truck with hairy escapes in its own end of the tournament bracket, which was only to be expected considering what Coach Bill (Jinx) Thomas has to work with: 11 scholarships. Not bad compared with Montclair State, the Bears' first victim last week, which has exactly zero. The Bears won five of seven games played against schools classified as major, including a home-and-away sweep of NIT member Southern Illinois, and what in the name of small-college basketball was a team with such a program doing in Evansville? "We're too big to be little and too little to be big," said Thomas.
The Southwest players were more than just athletes, too. Curtis Perry, the 6'7" pivot from Washington, D.C, also is a cartoonist and poet, specializing in satires of his opposition. Guard Willie Jenkins has written a children's book entitled Down by One, aimed at inspiring the kids living in the St. Louis ghetto where he grew up.
Trotting out on the floor for their first game, the Bears received the most unusual greeting in the 12-year history of the college division playoffs. The scoreboard, being lowered so that team nameplates could be changed, suddenly cut loose from its moorings and crashed to the center of the floor. Nobody was hurt, although Southwest's Ron Fife, chasing his warmup ball about five feet away, was badly shaken up. "I was bending over to pick up my ball," said Fife, "and all of a sudden there was the scoreboard." Officials pulled an old manual board out of the past, stationed it at courtside and Southwest proceeded to eliminate Montclair 92-76.
The scoreboard was battered but back in operation for Southwest's semifinal game against Ashland of Ohio, the nation's top-ranked team in both final wire-service polls. The Eagles had built their reputation by playing offense deliberately and defense as if it were a matter of national security, allowing a microscopic average of 32.3 points per game. Ashland's young coach, Bill Musselman, brought the best act into Evansville—a neo-Globetrotter warmup routine, a special bench with "Nation's No. 1 Defense" written on it, a gold sideline carpet and a purple eagle mascot. Unfortunately, the Eagles left their shooting touch at home. They made only 29% of their shots while eliminating Illinois State 41-35 in the first round.
"I can't believe it," raged Musselman, who chewed out his team behind locked doors after the game and had them out shooting for two hours on Thursday morning. He should have believed it. In the semifinals Ashland fell behind 7-0, then shot only 35% while falling to Southwest Missouri 58-48. Musselman's Eagles neither stopped Merton Bancroft and Perry inside nor Chuck Williams' long, arching bombs from the outside. "So much for Barnum and Bailey," said Perry in the dressing room.
The way Wesleyan's Daniels had the final against Southwest Missouri figured, his team's hopes for a third national championship in four years depended primarily on how successfully his good guards, Gene Smith and Tommy Hob-good, could press their Southwest counterparts. This pressure would hopefully disrupt the Bears enough to keep them from working the ball inside, where Perry and Bancroft had a big edge over Wesleyan's Dick (The Stick) O'Neill. Painfully hobbled by torn cartilage in his left knee, O'Neill played this entire season against his doctor's advice and he was scheduled to have an operation four days after the tournament.
Once the championship game started, it quickly developed into one that buffs in Owensboro and Springfield will be talking about for winters to come. With Tinsley and Hobgood hitting from outside and with Southwest momentarily befuddled by the Panthers' aggressive man-to-man defense, Wesleyan seized the initiative and led 15-7 with less than six minutes gone. The Kentuckians upped it to 10 late in the half, 36-26, and then, suddenly, produced a lovely explosion that should have put Southwest so deep in a hole it could not have dug itself out with a bulldozer. Within a 23-second period, Wesleyan's guards, Smith and Hobgood, stole the ball three straight times and laid in easy shots. The outburst shot the Panthers ahead by 21 points at halftime and their play was far and away their best since opening their title defense against Transylvania College.
This was a perfect chance for Southwest to fold, but the Bears did nothing of the sort. Instead, when Wesleyan began slowing it up and playing more cautiously in the second half, Southwest gradually chipped away at the lead until, with only 58 seconds remaining, Wesleyan was down to a four-point cushion, 71-67. But Duncan and Tinsley each hit two foul shots and the game ended with Bancroft scoring an uncontested layup to make the final score Wesleyan 75, Southwest 71.
"I have nothing but admiration for our kids," said Thomas after leaving the silent Southwest dressing room. "They made one of the most unbelievable comebacks this tournament has ever seen." Next door Daniels was accepting congratulations for his second championship in two years as head coach.
The happiest players in the dressing room were Wesleyan's three senior starters. Tinsley, who scored 23 points and headed the all-tournament team, became the first player ever to start for three national champions (he played as a freshman). "Not even Lew Alcindor can beat that," he said. Hobgood, after scoring only 10 points in his previous two games, responded with 20 in his last college effort. O'Neill, who limped off the floor after fouling out late in the second half said, "We rise to the occasion like old pros, like the Celtics."
The final word belonged to President Hamilton, who got the microphone after the awards ceremonies. "O.K., this is what you're waiting for," he told his Kentucky Wesleyan students. "Monday will be a holiday for a victory celebration." And for some more cheerleading by Harold P. Hamilton.