Everything wonderful in the dandy and daffy world of small-college basketball came to an abrupt, intense climax out in the snows of Wisconsin the other day simply because that team from the faraway place with the strange-sounding name finally did it.
After two long years of waiting—and losing the big one—the Blugolds of Eau Claire reached the top. When their time came, it was sudden and complete; it took them only one minute and nine seconds to reach past their old nemesis, Kentucky State, and grab the No. 1 ring of the NAIA. The rest of the contest was just for the record, as Guard Frank Schade zipped the Blugolds to a decisive 101-81 victory over the Thorobreds in the Eau Claire Holiday Classic.
Besides offering the two best teams in small-college basketball—if there is such a thing as small-college basketball—this Holiday Classic is one of a kind. The home team plays the first game, not the last. The cheerleaders practically outnumber the players while bringing off tricky deals with an old parachute. And the three visiting teams ride together to games in the same bus, producing such conversational gambits as:
Player 1: "Sure is quiet here."
Player 2: "Sometimes be that way."
The championship game, to be sure, went only one way. Quickly, the curly-haired Schade—who looks like C. W. Moss after he has climbed out from under the camshaft of Clyde Barrow's roadster—and freshman Rich Reitzner led a marvelously balanced attack from back-court that shredded Kentucky State's press and set up easy jumpers for the Blugolds' big men. Meanwhile, Steve Johnson and Duke Nash took turns roughing up the Thorobreds' star shooter, Travis (Machine) Grant. From a 10-9 lead early in the game, Eau Claire scored four straight baskets on fast breaks in its magic 1:09 to run the Breds right out of University Arena. The lead went to 12, then 17 at the half (50-33), and Kentucky State was not in the contest after that. Never had Machine been treated so. He finished with 32 points but made only 11 of 30 shots.
Preliminary skirmishing between the two biggies of the smalls had not indicated such a conclusion. Half of Eau Claire's four defeats over the past two seasons were tournament losses to Kentucky State. Everybody in last March's wacky NAIA tournament—including the invisible dog that once served as a team's mascot—thought a third face-off would come in Kansas City, but it was not to be. Eau Claire was upset by Eastern Michigan, and while Kentucky State won its second NAIA title, Eau Claire Coach Ken Anderson could only contemplate a long summer. "This has been the longest wait of my life," he said.
Meanwhile, Kentucky State Coach Lucias Mitchell, the Purlie Victorious of the college game, was staying loose. His team had won 60 games in two years, but this season he was without 7'1" Elmore Smith, who dominated the NAIA ranks before joining Buffalo of the NBA. And now it was meeting time again, with Eau Claire as host. The opening-night schedule for Eau Claire and Kentucky State, respectively, was Wiley and Drury. The two schools were good, hardly a Ted Mack juggling act their names suggested. Wiley (of Marshall, Texas) jolted the Blugolds by coming from 17 points behind to within five before losing 80-73. Kentucky State had an even harder time getting past Drury, whose freshman guards, Paul Hauck and Brent Stuckey, were the hit of the evening in a 68-66 loss. Make that the second hit.
With 1:44 left in the first half, Machine Grant—frustrated by double teaming and a cold hand—delivered a marvelous elbow to the face of Larry Buzbee. While Buzbee wandered into dreamland, Referee Wayne Kelliher signaled a "flagrant foul" on Grant, which meant automatic ejection. It is a call made about once every eclipse, but Coach Mitchell remained commendably sane about the thing. "Say what?" he yelled at Kelliher. "Say what, Mr. Official!"
"I saw it. If I don't put him out, I look bad," said Kelliher.
"Look bad?" cried Mitchell. "What you say? You are putting my 50 points a game beside me on the bench. Ridiculous. This is basketball; basketball is elbows."
In the championship game Mitchell's main concern was State's lack of experience at the center position, where 6'10½" freshman Andre Hampton was to battle Eau Claire's experienced Mike Ratliff. In time Hampton will be an awesome customer, but now he is raw. Eau Claire had five players who had been together for almost four years. "We've been in Kentucky State's shadow too long," said Schade. "They say they're as good as last year, but without Smith they aren't."
Eau Claire was missing Schade's back-court teammate, James Lindsey, who had lost his eligibility through poor grades just a week before, and Mitchell was ready to take advantage of the weakness. "Their guards can't handle pressure," he said happily.
Anderson had his own confident view. "If we play our best and they play their best, we will win," he said.
And they did. That night Machine missed his first three shots. Eau Claire's Ratliff exploded up the middle to take midcourt passes and help break the press. Tom (Powder Keg) Peck and Tom Jackson strong-armed their way around the rims. The confused Breds digressed into one-on-one patterns and were through almost before they began.
"This has been a long time coming," said Schade afterward, holding his Most Valuable Player trophy in the locker room. Yes. But worth it.