The Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. stood gray and gloomy, matching the drizzly December afternoon. Inside, where there should have been fans yelling and pompons shaking and a basketball floor gleaming, there was nothing but darkness and wet gravel. For more than three years construction men have been blasting out limestone and piecing together concrete slabs, preparing this 17,500-seat home for the University of Indiana's Hurryin' Hoosiers.
School authorities were sure the building would be finished last year, and Kentucky was booked in to help dedicate the arena. Not a chance. The game was moved to Lexington. So the Wildcats were invited back this year for the new grand opening. Still not a chance, and that was a shame, considering the kind of game the teams finally did play. The excitement they stirred would have been a fitting grand opening for the Taj Mahal. Kentucky, in Bloomington for the first time in 42 years, beat Indiana in overtime 95-93 after the Hoosiers seemingly had won.
The site was Indiana's outdated hangar of a field house, crouched next to the Assembly Hall's hulk and jammed with 9,258 people. Capacity crowds have been rare there in recent years. While the basketball team was able to win only 26 games the last three seasons, the interest of students strayed to the Wednesday-night turtle races at a local pizza parlor and the debate over the right of coeds to visit men's dormitory rooms at 3 a.m. However, passion for basketball revived with the development of a potential winner, and the ticket manager last week happily proclaimed that the Kentucky game, even without ribbon-cutting ceremonies, was Indiana's "first lock-cinch sellout since 1965." It was also televised over most of the state and sent back to the Kentucky campus via closed-circuit color TV.
Indiana's important assets are 6'7" junior Joby Wright of Savannah, Ga., who was picked for the experimental Olympic team last summer, and two 6'7" sophomores from Indianapolis, George McGinnis and Steve Downing. In their senior year in high school, McGinnis and Downing led their team to a 31-0 record and the state championship. Last summer McGinnis played for the U. S. at the World University Games and was the team's leading scorer and rebounder.
McGinnis was also a high-school All-America football player for two years. Last spring he went to Indiana football Coach John Pont and asked if he could go out for the team. Pont, who rarely refuses a 6'7", 235-pound, fast, agile, sure-handed wide receiver, turned the request over to the athletic director, who shuddered at the idea of some Big Ten linebacker hitting one of the country's best basketball prospects. No, he said. If Assembly Hall was ever finished, somebody would have to help fill it.
McGinnis is certainly that somebody. Coach Lou Watson, returning after missing a season because of a bad back, put him and Downing in the starting lineup right away, and the two friends led the Hoosiers to wins over Eastern Michigan and Kansas State. McGinnis scored 26 points in each game and added 21 in an exhibition victory over the touring Australian champions. He also made more turnovers than Betty Crocker, but he wasn't embarrassed. His credo, he said, is: "Anytime I have my hands on the ball, there's a chance of putting it in the hoop."
Coach Adolph Rupp of Kentucky came into Bloomington with his usual well-drilled, undefeated, lily-white team. Whoops, look again. Well-drilled, undefeated and integrated. Rupp's favorite sophomore, Tom Payne, is not only the first black player in the 68-year history of Kentucky basketball but the tallest player as well. Payne is listed as 7 feet, but the Baron insists that he is 7'2½".
Rupp, 69 years old and supposedly nearing retirement, looks healthier than he did last season. He is bothered by a persistent infection on one foot, but his diabetes is under control. The morning of the game he ate a good breakfast, reminded himself it was his grandson's fourth birthday and told stories about the old "rathole" hotels in the South ("I used to stay awake all night with a list of the boys' rooms by my bed in case there was a fire"). Five hours later when he sat down next to the Indiana court, he was wearing his famous brown suit and scowl.
Injuries had weakened both teams. Kentucky forward Larry Steele broke his right thumb in practice Wednesday, and Indiana's Downing was submarined in the game against Australia and landed on his tail bone. The rest of the week in practice he walked around like a man balancing a glass of water on his head. Each coaching staff was positive the other team's loss was less damaging than its own. Downing suited up, but Watson, well acquainted with sore backs, kept him on the bench.
Despite the absence of the two players, the rebounding battle was fierce. Payne, although a good free-throw shooter and shot blocker, was not much of a force under the boards. McGinnis and Wright were enough to give Indiana the edge, at least until Wright fouled out with a minute left in regulation time. Each of them did more traveling than an Olympic walker, however, often undoing on the ground what he had accomplished in the air.
Most of the times McGinnis was stopped, he stopped himself—by traveling, by taking unconscionable shots, by missing free throws. Much of his game looked as if it still belonged on the schoolyard court. He would put up a jump shot and then, instead of following in hard in case he missed, he would cock his head oddly to the left and take a couple of bouncy steps in the same direction, almost like a bowler trying to help his ball with body English. Despite all his faults and sophomore mistakes, McGinnis scored 38 points and showed enough raw power, speed and talent to scare almost any defensive man this side of UCLA's Sidney Wicks.
Kentucky, making more shots and far fewer mistakes, led at halftime 44-38. McGinnis' scoring and a tough pressure defense helped put Indiana ahead by seven points with 5½ minutes left, but in their hurry the Hoosiers got too fast for themselves and let unflappable Kentucky off the hook. A traveling violation here, a sloppy pass there, were all the Wildcats needed to regain the lead.
Indiana junior Rick Ford tied the game at 80-80 with two free throws, and a few seconds later he managed to corner Kentucky's Mike Casey. Jump ball at Kentucky's end of the court with five seconds to go.
Ford outleaped Casey and tipped the ball to teammate John Ritter, who dribbled past a Kentucky man and set himself for a desperation heave toward the Hoosier basket, 65 feet away. As it should in a heroic finish, the buzzer sounded while the shot was in the air. The ball did not carom off the glass backboard. It did not tantalize anyone by rattling around the rim. It just dropped through like a rock, causing a mild quiver in the net and a much larger one in Adolph Rupp's heart. The crowd roared, and some pompon girls raced onto the court to hug Ritter—but hold everything. McGinnis, behind Ritter's back, had called time out before the shot. No basket, time-out Indiana. Three seconds were left when play resumed and Indiana threw the ball in from out-of-bounds in the backcourt. Ritter was able to fire another mortar shot, but this time it was far short. Overtime.
Tom Parker's left-handed sharpshooting kept Kentucky ahead throughout the five-minute extra period. A McGinnis jump shot brought Indiana to within one point, 94-93. With a few seconds to go, McGinnis drove in for a layup through heavy traffic in the key, but the ball slipped out of his hand as he leaped up and he blew the shot. Parker's last free throw made it 95-93.
"I think they can win the Big Ten," said Rupp.
"We've got to win the Big Ten," said McGinnis.
"It was a whale of a game for the spectators, but not much of one for the coach," said Watson in his quiet locker room. Then he glanced at the mimeographed stat sheet, which showed that Indiana had outrebounded Kentucky 62-55 (McGinnis had 20). He estimated that if Downing had played, the rebounding edge would have been much more pronounced.
As the disappointed fans filed out of the field house, there was talk of a possible rematch. If the Hoosiers win the Big Ten championship and the Wildcats win the SEC, they could meet in the Mideast Regional of the NCAA tournament, when the two teams presumably would have a full quota of healthy tailbones and thumbs.