The nation's college basketball coaches, a collection of middle-aged gentlemen who are losing their hair and the tone of their tummy muscles, had themselves a ball last week in San Francisco. Hundreds of them checked in at the comfortable old Palace Hotel for their annual convention and to attend the championship round of the NCAA basketball tournament. They crowded the Palace bars, stuffed themselves with cracked crab at Fisherman's Wharf and with rare roast beef at Jack's and Ernie's restaurants, whistled at the lightly clad hostesses in the Gold Street honky-tonks and ogled the bearded beatniks in North Beach. During the day they climbed the steep hills of this gay, handsome city, and late at night they gathered in a dozen convivial corners and sang 10,000 off-key, bourbon-scented choruses of Heart of My Heart and Sweet Adeline.
But they will all forget the pleasures of San Francisco long before they forget two basketball games they and 14,000-odd others saw at the Cow Palace (above) on Friday and Saturday nights. Friday's semifinal feature was a down-to-the-wire thriller between California and Cincinnati, and Saturday's was the final between California and Ohio State—a fascinating match-up of the top defensive and offensive teams in the nation.
Led by Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati came to San Francisco determined to reverse its defeat at the hands of this same California team last year at the very same stage of the championship tournament—the semifinal round. The Cincinnatians brought their school band and hundreds of home-town rooters, and they tore into Cal with great power and confidence. They had a basket within five seconds, another very soon thereafter, and with nine and a half minutes gone, they had a nine-point lead, 20-11.
The odd thing about this was that Cal's traditionally fine defense was working well; Cal stole the ball repeatedly and then missed the easy lay-ups. All its points were made on difficult shots after careful execution of set plays. Cal contained Robertson—who didn't score his first field goal until two minutes before the end of the half—but his accurate pass work accounted for most of Cincinnati's points. Only as half time approached did the Cal defense begin to pay off; then the Bears caught and passed Cincinnati and left the floor ahead 34-30.
But if Cal thought it had the game won there, it had a rude jolt coming. After play resumed, Cincinnati refused to crack despite Cal's continued defensive pressure. With a minute and a half to go, Called by only three points. Here Cincinnati made a series of costly errors that led to two quick baskets by Cal Guard Earl Schultz, and the game was over, with Cal winning 77-69. This was clearly a victory for defensive basketball, as taught so well by California's Coach Pete Newell. The ability to force Cincinnati into mistakes in ball handling had saved the day.
In the other semifinal Ohio State had an easy time of it in beating NYU 76-54. State impressed few observers that night, because NYU was obviously tense and jittery throughout the game and apparently out of its class. In the lobbies of the Palace Hotel the next day most of the coaches present were certain that California would have little trouble in beating Ohio State.
In the Cow Palace that night, however, State surprised them all, and also the oddsmakers who had established California as the favorite by five points. Few had taken into account some hard facts. Only three teams had beaten Ohio State this year—all three were road games, incidentally—and each time the opposing team had been obliged to score at least 96 points and, in two instances, make better than 53% of its shots. This State crew is a tall, rugged bunch of native Ohioans who have been playing basketball since elementary school days. They are cool, poised veterans, though several of the best are sophomores, and they are intelligently directed by their youthful coach, Fred Taylor.
State's Jerry Lucas is an agile, nerveless kid of 19 who plays 40 minutes of every game without changing his deadpan expression and seldom makes a mistake. When his team fast-breaks down the court, as it does at every opportunity, Lucas trails the leader and always manages to be hovering around the rim of the basket to stuff in the shot if it misses. On a team that boasts a flock of fine shooters, he is unusually accurate, with a delicately soft shooting touch. It was his particular task, in the final, to guard California s Darrall Imhoff, who had scored 25 points against Cincinnati the previous night. Lucas showed right at the start that he was equal to it.
California began poorly, as it had done against Cincinnati. It conceded two quick baskets and was soon behind 18-8. Lucas gave Imhoff room only when he was far away from the basket; in close, he was always between Imhoff and the ball. Actually, every one of the Ohio State players was beating Cal at Cal's own game—defense—at the same time State was on the way to an amazing shooting percentage.
In the first half, State took 19 shots and scored on 16. Lucas hit five out of six, Joe Roberts, Mel Nowell and Larry Siegfried sank all nine of their attempts. The team percentage was an incredible .842, while Cal's was .296. And the half-time score was Ohio State 37, Cal 19.
Still, very few in the noisy capacity audience—most of them, to be sure, California partisans—and fewer of the coaches present were prepared to concede. Often enough in the past California had come out for a second half far behind, and its persistence in forcing rival errors had brought victory. Newell brought his team back into play with a crushing press defense, and within five minutes Cal scored 10 points to Ohio State's five. Perhaps the looked-for breakthrough was at hand after all. But the press proved to be Cal's undoing. Converging on the State man with the ball, Cal was obliged to uncover a free man somewhere else, and after a short period of fumbling, State began to find him. Two or three furiously fast scoring breaks with more than five minutes still to be played destroyed California for good. When the flurry was over, Ohio State's shooting percentage was still a remarkable .767.
There was no longer any doubt about the outcome, and Fred Taylor began substituting freely. A lineup fashioned entirely of State reserves had little difficulty maintaining the 20-point margin that existed when they came in, and the Buckeyes won 75-55.
While it is true that Ohio State's offensive power had overcome California's defenses in one more round of the offense-defense debate, it is just as certain that these Ohioans know how to handle themselves when the other team has the ball. State seldom conceded a good shot. For the most part, California found itself obliged to take second-best opportunities. The team's shooting percentage was .339, far below what is required to beat Ohio State.
Afterwards, beaten for the national championship in his own home territory and at the end of a magnificent coaching career (he will be Cal's athletic director next year), Pete Newell refused to take advantage of the many excuses offered him by sympathetic California sportswriters.
"Did the tough Cincinnati game take something out of your players?"
"No," said Newell. "Ohio State played last night too, you know."
"Was so-and-so's leg bothering him, and did so-and-so have a cold?"
"No, no, no," said Newell. "We were beaten by a fine team. You have to give him the credit."
It was a typical performance by this honest, gracious man. Across the Cow Palace in Ohio State's dressing room Fred Taylor was equally gracious in victory.
"I went to Pete Newell last summer," said Taylor, "to learn how to coach basketball. My team last year had the worst defensive record in Ohio State's history. I had to do something, and Pete's the best in the business at this. I asked him to help me and he did. He showed me everything. He confirmed some of my ideas, and he gave me the courage to try things I was afraid were too radical. Last year, our boys couldn't have caught Marilyn Monroe in a phone booth. Now look at them. I used many of Pete's ideas. And they paid off for us tonight."