After four months of competition, the college basketball season ended in a final flurry of excitement that tilled two great arenas to overflowing and captured the attention of millions on television. Loyola of Chicago, a high-jumping, fast-shooting band of underdogs, staged a withering second-half comeback to upset Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime at the NCAA finals in Louisville's Freedom Hall (see page 22) while Providence, another running team, beat Canisius 81-66 for the National Invitation Tournament championship in New York's Madison Square Garden.
Some 5,000 noisy Providence fans were among the sellout crowd of 18,499 on hand for the NIT final, and they whooped it up with a seemingly endless chant of "Let's go, Friars," while a sweet-tootling band, led by a foot-tapping priest, beat out lively tunes. It was a wonder they had even a squeak left when Coach Joe Mullaney removed his starters from the game in the final minutes and happily embraced every Friar he could reach.
It was all a just reward for Mullaney's patience and fortitude through a season in which the Friars kept him fretting nervously. In their early games Mullaney had the team attacking deliberately, and it was their peculiar but extremely quick-handed defense—a strange combination of zone and man-to-man—that earned them their victories. But the players weren't happy with a ball-control game. So, in midseason, Mullaney decided to let them run. It proved to be a wise decision. Providence had the rebounders it needed in 6-foot-11 John Thompson and 6-foot-8 Bob Kovalski, deadly shooters in Ray Flynn and Jim Stone and a brilliant playmaker in hustling Vinnie Ernst, a snub-nosed peewee with a knack for dribbling, faking and passing while on the dead run. "I remember when we used to play defense," recalled Mullaney a bit sadly. "Well, we run and shoot now and the kids seem to like it." Indeed, the carefree Friars liked it so well that they ended the season with a 12-game winning streak.
But Providence's bad habits very nearly cost it dearly against Miami in the NIT quarter-finals. The fast-breaking Hurricanes appeared to be soundly trounced when Ernst's spectacular playmaking and the shooting of Flynn (38 points) and Stone (26) moved Providence out to a 90-71 lead with 5½ minutes to go. Then the Friars began to dawdle, and Miami, led by 7-foot-1 Mike McCoy, cut the margin to 94-92 with only 1:54 left. At this point Providence went back to its control game, with considerable success, and eventually won, 106-96.
Marquette, a running team that had routed St. Louis so easily in its first game, 84-49, tried a slowdown against Providence in the semifinals. But there was no slowing down the Friars. Ernst, his right leg full of novocaine to deaden the pain of a pulled hamstring muscle suffered in the Miami game, bewildered the Warriors with his passing and dribbling, Flynn floated in 25 points, and Providence won 70-64. There was, however, some consolation for Marquette. The Warriors later beat Villanova 66-58 for third place in the tournament.
Meanwhile, Canisius worked its way into the final, but not before Villanova's testy zone and Wally Jones, its hard-working guard, gave the Griffs some trying moments. Scoring freely on his beautifully timed jump shot, Jones had 24 points, and Villanova was ahead 35-31 after four minutes of the second half. Then in came Pat Turtle, a 5-foot-11 guard who had broken his ankle in early February and played only briefly against Memphis State in the opening game, to stop Jones. Turtle, who quite obviously knew that Jones doesn't like to go to his left, was never more than a breath away from him for the rest of the game and Wally didn't get another point. In the meantime, Canisius found a way to crack Villanova's zone. Bill O'Connor moved up to a high post, Tony Gennari and Frank Swiatek shot over the dismayed Wildcats for 33 points and Canisius went on to win, 61-46.
Canisius Coach Bob MacKinnon knew what to expect when his team met Providence in the final. "They'll beat us off the boards," he predicted grimly, "and that Chinese defense of theirs always gives us trouble." How right he was. Thompson bested O'Connor in a bruising backboard battle and, when Thompson accumulated four fouls and had to move to the wing of Providence's zone, Kovalski came over to give the Canisius rebounder an equally hard time. Tom Chester and Gennari had some luck shooting over the tight Friar zone, and O'Connor managed to get away from his tormentors long enough to score 22 points, but this hardly matched Providence's offensive proficiency. With the ailing Ernst passing off for 10 baskets—and stealing the ball eight times—the Friars turned the game into a rout. Stone scored 23 points, Flynn (later voted the Most Valuable Player) poured in 20, mostly on high, arching jump shots from outside, and Providence won its 15th straight, 81-66. Even Coach Mullaney was impressed. "Today they blended everything," he said contentedly. "This was their best game."