Even before the season began Joe Lapchick knew that this would be his last. The administrators at St. John's, where he had labored on and off for 20 of his 65 years, had decreed that Lapchick was to be retired at the end of the 1965 campaign. A genteel, articulate man with immense innate dignity, Lapchick took the decision graciously and then set out to show what a 65-year-old coach could still accomplish.
His team surprised almost everyone by beating No. 1-ranked Michigan by a single point in the final of New York's Holiday Festival in January, and last Saturday, before 18,499 who filled Madison Square Garden to capacity, the Redmen gave the Old Coach the going-away present he wanted so dearly—a 55-51 victory over top-seeded Villanova in the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament. It made Lapchick the only coach ever to win the NIT four times.
All season long Lapchick had been telling people that his team was not a great one, even after it upset Michigan. He honestly felt they were just a good bunch of hustling kids. But St. John's had more than mere hustle. It had Sonny Dove, a 6-foot-7 sophomore rebounder who played with the carefree enthusiasm of a schoolboy on a picnic, and Bob McIntyre, a 6-foot-6 forward who could shoot. Jerry Houston and Kenny McIntyre were a pair of contrasting backcourt players. Houston, a wiry, tough 6-foot-1 ball-handler, quarterbacked Lapchick's disciplined, patient offense and defended with the brashness of a street fighter, while Kenny McIntyre, a sleepy-eyed blond, had a thing about putting the ball into the basket. He loved to shoot, and his jump shots arched through the hoop like trained seals. He also handled the ball well, was imperturbable under pressure, and both he and Houston were adept at finding the free man with swift, accurate passes. Ken Wirell, a plodding but steady player, and Bob Duerr shared the fifth starting spot. St. John's came into the NIT with a 17-8 record and routed Boston College in the first game.
But Lapchick's team was up to its ears in trouble against second-seeded New Mexico in the quarter-finals. While the Lobos careful defense—second-best in the nation—hemmed in St. John's shooters, 6-foot-9 Mel Daniels snapped up rebounds, and New Mexico led 26-22 at half time. Then Dove began to get the rebounds away from Daniels and New Mexico's defense was suddenly not nearly so stringent. The McIntyres bombed away for 36 points between them, and St. John's eventually won 61-54.
Army, which had beaten Western Kentucky 58-54, also made a determined run at the Redmen in the semifinals, and the aggressive Cadets led St. John's by six points late in the first half. But the Redmen tightened up their defense, forcing Army to shoot from outside and, except for Mike Silliman, a smooth forward who scored 17 points, the Cadets just did not have the shooters to do the job. Kenny McIntyre scored 21 points, including five free throws that stretched his NIT string to 29 straight, Houston got 18 more points, and St. John's won 67-60. There was, however, some consolation for young Coach Tates Locke and his Cadets. They later beat NYU 75-74 for third place, just as they did a year ago, when Dick Murray threw in a corner shot with six seconds to play.
Villanova, meanwhile, had a time with Manhattan. The Jaspers' slick ball-handlers and shooters treated Villanova's combination defense shamefully, feeding jump shooter Larry Lembo for 31 points and sending big Bob Chlupsa down the middle for easy layups. Manhattan led by nine points with 8:20 to go. Then the Wildcats went to a man-to-man defense. It stopped Manhattan cold. Bill Melchionni, Jim Washington. Bill Soens and Eric Erickson outscored the Jaspers 11-2 in the last 6½ minutes, and Villanova took the game 73-71.
NYU, an earlier 87-76 winner over Detroit, was much easier for Villanova. While the Violets missed dreadfully from outside against Villanova's taut combination, the acrobatic Washington, and Soens, a chubby 6-foot-8, swept the boards for 33 rebounds. Melchionni darted in and around the Violets on drives and shot over them for 31 points. Soens added 23, and Villanova won 91-69. It was an impressive show of weapons by a skilled team.
And it was enough to worry Joe Lapchick. The day before the final game he had his team practicing against zone and combination defenses for two hours. "I told my kids they've got to be patient," he said "Our game plan is for more movement and to make them come to us. If we get bombed, we get bombed. But we're not going in scared." Villanova's Jack Kraft had problems, too. Melchionni, his playmaker and best shooter, had developed swollen glands, a sore throat and a virus. Kraft also knew that his team would be at a psychological disadvantage. "How many million people are there in New York?" he asked wistfully. "I'm sure every one of them will be rooting for Joe."
As it turned out, Melchionni was almost useless Saturday. He played little more than a half and scored only four points. St. John's, meanwhile, went at Villanova's combination defense deliberately, as Lapchick ordered. The Redmen worked the ball until Dove or Bob McIntyre got loose underneath. Then Houston and Kenny McIntyre hit them with quick passes for baskets. Kenny Mac also maneuvered behind screens for jump shots from the side. With 4:49 to go in the first half St. John's led by 14 points. But Washington came up with eight quick points and Villanova rallied to cut the lead to 36-28 at the intermission.
Villanova went to a man-to-man defense at the start of the second half, and almost immediately the Wildcats perked up again. St. John's shot more sparingly, and Washington began beating weary Dove to the boards, but Villanova was never quite able to catch up. St. John's concentrated on defense, and the busy McIntyre boys popped in 15 points to keep the Redmen safely, ahead. Houston's two free throws in the last seconds clinched the game and the championship for St. John's. Kenny McIntyre, who later was voted the Most Valuable Player ass aid, had 18 points (101 for the tournament), Bob 16.
It was a wonderful finish for old Joe Lapchick. His lined face broke into a grin, his right fist went up in a victory salute, and he embraced every Redman he could reach as he shouted happily, "What a way to go."