Along about 3:45 last Saturday afternoon a bit of unrehearsed pandemonium broke out in New York's Madison Square Garden. Six pretty flag twirlers, after enchanting appreciative New Yorkers with their dance routines, rushed out to embrace five sweaty Brigham Young basketball players who in turn raised beaming Coach Stan Watts to their shoulders and jounced him up and down, his bald head gleaming in the bright Garden lights. The BYU band, 25 strong and present only because schoolmates back in Provo, Utah, had managed to wheedle $5,000 out of alumni and friends to pay its way, happily tootled, "Rise and shout, the Cougars are out."
Brigham Young had just beaten NYU 97-84 before 18,479 persons to win the National Invitation Tournament championship. Maybe it was not the same as winning the NCAA title, but for BYU, a team that came into the NIT top-seeded and then had to scramble and claw for its victories, it was a richly satisfying accomplishment. In three games, the Cougars played before more people than the entire population of Provo. They had finished second to Utah in the Western AC, despite having twice beaten the Redskins—who reached the NCAA semifinals—and had a 17-5 record.
Brigham Young arrived in New York with a squad that featured an All-America guard and three—yes, three—6-foot-11 players. Dick Nemelka, a blond, flat-nosed 6-footer whose specialty is shooting, was the All-America while sophomore Jim Eakins and junior Craig Raymond, two of the 6-foot-11 giants, alternated at center. The forwards were 6-foot-5 Steve Kramer, a strong rebounder and bullish driver, and 6-foot-4 Gary Hill. Then there was Jeff Congdon, a balding, quick-handed hustler who passed off like a blackjack dealer and played the backcourt with Nemelka. They had averaged 97.1 points a game coming into the tournament.
But Brigham Young almost did not get to the final. Temple, a finely disciplined team, slowed down the Cougars with a tight 2-3 zone in the quarter-finals, and Jim Williams, a 6-foot-8 center, made Eakins and Raymond look like hicks in the city. He reached over them to pluck away 20 rebounds and score 38 points. It was not until Nemelka and Congdon cracked Temple's zone from outside that the Cougars were able to win 90-78.
Army, which had surprised San Francisco 80-63 on the superb shooting of Bill Helkie (he put in 15 of 20 shots and scored 34 points), made an even more determined run at Brigham Young in the semifinals. Playing deliberately and defending strongly, the short but well-coached Cadets held their own off the boards and had the Cougars 31-24 at the half. Then Watts set up a side post offense, and the tempo speeded up. Army still led 58-56 with 2:29 to go, but Raymond, in for Eakins, had control of the boards and BYU's zone press was hurting the Cadets badly. At this point. Helkie fouled out on a call that was bitterly denounced by young Coach Bobby Knight, and Nemelka tied the score with two free throws. Sub Jim Jimas scored two quick baskets, and it was all over for Army. BYU won 66-60, but Watts was not too happy. "That first half was terrible. Too slow," he complained.
NYU, meanwhile, was surprising everybody. The Violets shocked second-seeded Wichita State 90-84 in overtime. Stan McKenzie, a splendid leaper, and Mal Graham, a slithery jump-shooter, kept NYU in the game and Bruce Kaplan's foul-shooting won it in the extra period. Villanova, which had outlasted Boston College 86-85 as Bill Melchionni scored 30 points, was NYU's victim in the semifinals. NYU played a box-and-one defense with Richie Dyer on Melchionni, and it was beautiful. Dyer held Melchionni to 17 points, Kaplan's long-range bombing for 21 points broke the Wildcats' zone defenses, and the Violets won 69-63. But Villanova salvaged some glory. The Wildcats beat Army 76-65 for third place.
By now, Brigham Young's Watts was really worried. He had fretted because his team had not played its game. Watts likes the Cougars to run and gun, and they had done precious little of either. "Any time you have to face kids like Graham, McKenzie and Kaplan, you've got trouble," he said. NYU's Lou Rossini was worried, too. "We'll get our points," he predicted, "but I just hope we can stop their good backcourt, and that big guy Raymond bothers me."
As it turned out, Raymond was tough indeed. He roamed underneath the boards, blocking shots, snapping up rebounds and dunking the ball. He scored 21 points, had 18 rebounds and set BYU's fast break in motion. Congdon passed off magnificently, often catching the bewildered Violets going the other way with his snappy feeds and backhand flips. One over-the-head full-court pass brought the crowd to its feet. Even so, NYU gave the Cougars a tussle. With Kaplan popping in long one-handers and Graham getting away for 16 points, the Violets were down only 48-43 at the half. Then BYU's press got to them, and they wilted badly. The Cougars began to run freely, Kramer and Hill scored 41 points between them, Nemelka got 15, and not even McKenzie's hot hand (he scored 27) could save NYU. The Violets had gone as far as they could.
Watts, his round face wreathed in a big grin, chortled, "I was hoping we would show you folks how we play basketball." Over in the NYU dressing room Rossini walked off his disappointment. "I never really felt we'd get this far," he admitted wearily. "They were just too good."