ON THIS DAY: Hoosiers Win 1953 National Title With Thrilling Win Over Kansas

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — On March 18, 1953, Indiana won its second of five national basketball championships, but the all-time greatest quote in school history might have come out of that game.

The Hoosiers, who had only lost three games all season, met up with Kansas in the title game that year, and they were playing before a hostile crowd in Kansas City, Mo., right down the road from the Kansas campus in Lawrence. The game was tight throughout, and it was tied at 68-68 when Bobby "Slick'' Leonard was fouled with 27 seconds to go.

He made a free throw to win the game — after missing the first one — probably the biggest free throw in Indiana history.

Legendary coach Branch McCracken, who was an All-American player at Indiana in 1930 and coached the Hoosiers to the 1940 national title as well, said he wasn't worried about Leonard knocking down the shot, because he had "ice water in his veins.''

When told of his coach's comments afterward, Leonard had a different take on the pressure-packed moment.

“It sure felt warm running down my leg.” Leonard said. 

That's a pure classic there.

Leonard and 6-foot-10 center Don Schlundt were Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside on that great Hoosiers team. Schlundt, just a sophomore on that title team in '53, averaged 25.4 points per game in 1953. And when he left school in 1955, he was the all-time leading scorer at IU and in the Big Ten, a record that stood for 32 years when Indiana's Steve Alford broke it. (IU's Calbert Cheaney would later break Alford's mark in 1993).

That '53 team could score, with weapons all over the court. When they beat Butler 105-70 on Feb. 2 that year, it was the first time an Indiana team had ever broken the century mark. And three weeks later, when they beat Purdue 113-78 on Feb. 23 in Bloomington, it was the first time that anyone had scored over 100 points in a Big Ten game.

The Hoosiers would finish 23-3 that year, with the only losses coming on the road at Notre Dame and Kansas State early in the year, and at Minnesota during the final week of the regular season, which prevented the Hoosiers from sweeping the round-robin Big Ten schedule, finishing 17-1 in the league instead.

In postseason play in the 22-team 1953 tournament, Indiana beat DePaul 82-80 in Chicago behind Schlundt's 23 points and Leonard's 22. Next up was No. 17 Notre Dame, and the Hoosiers avenged that December loss with a big 79-66 win where Schlundt led the way with 41 points.

Before it was called the Final Four, the Hoosiers were one of the last four standing, and met No. 7-ranked LSU and All-American standout Bob Pettit in the semifinals. Indiana won 80-67, setting the stage for another showdown with Phog Allen's No. 5-ranked Kansas team. Indiana had also beaten Kansas in 1940 for its first title. 

Indiana had a 68-65 lead late but Kansas rallied to tie the game. Leonard drove into the lane and was fouled, setting up the big moment. His first attempt was woefully short, barely clipping the rim. But the second one went right in to give Indiana the lead.

Kansas tried to get the ball inside on its last possession but had to settle for a long jump shot from the corner. It missed and Indiana had its win — and second national title.

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Indiana coach Branch McCracken and guard Bobby Leonard helped the Hoosiers win the 1953 national championship. (Photo courtesy of IU Archives)

McCracken coached IU for 23 years, amassing 364 wins and 210 Big Ten wins. He won  four regular season Big Ten titles and went to the NCAA tournament four times — when only conference champions were invited — winning those two national titles. His Indiana teams finished second in the Big Ten eight teams, and were denied the opporunity to play in the NCAA tournament as a runner-up.

McCracken was inducted in the basketball Hall of Fame in 1960 and the court at Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall is named after him, Branch McCracken Court. He died in 1970, just a few days before his 62nd birthday.

The 1953 team was actually pretty young, with Jim Schooley being the only senior. He was joined by juniors Leonard, team captain Charlie Kraak, Dick Farley, Jack Wright, Ron Taylor, Lou Scott and Jim Deakyne. The sophomore class included Schlundt, Phil Byers, Dick White, Burke Scott, Paul Poff, Don Henry, James Field, William Ditius and Goethe Chambers. 

Leonard often said that the 1954 team might have been even better than the 1953 champions. The Hoosiers were 20-4 that year and Schlundt and Leonard were practically unstoppable. But the fell to arch-rival Notre Dame 65-64 in the regionals.

Related 'ON THIS DAY' stories

  • March 16, 2016: Indiana fires Tom Crean after nine seasons. CLICK HERE
  • March 17, 2000: Indiana loses to Pepperdine 77-57 in Bob Knighjt's final game as coach of the Hoosiers. CLICK HERE
  • Coming March 19: One more dagger thrown by Indiana in its bigger rivalry with Kentucky.

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