There they were, in Madison Square Garden, competing in what one New York columnist called the National Insignificant Tournament. It wasn't really the place for them, the Terrapins of Maryland, the team that had hoped to become the UCLA of the East but could not beat North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference playoffs. Nor for the Terps' star, 6'11" Tom McMillen, who was supposed to become sophomore of the year but was quickly forgotten when people got a look at UCLA's Bill Walton. Yet Maryland had gone to the NIT with pleasure, determined to repair its pride by winning a national championship, any national championship. You could mumble that "Invitation" part when you told your grandchildren.
The trip north was especially important to Maryland Coach Lefty Driesell, who while at Davidson had been frustrated time after time in postseason tournaments. Driesell wore his lucky green suit for every game, and McMillen and his classmate, 6'9" Len Elmore, played so well that they at least equaled one Bill Walton as the Terps beat St. Joseph's, Syracuse and Jacksonville. Then, in the nationally televised final last Saturday afternoon, Maryland went over Niagara in a barrel of laughs, 100-69, allowing never-bashful Lefty to proclaim, "We must be the No. 2 team in the nation right now!"
The NIT had some other entertaining visitors, most notably Oral Roberts U., which upset Memphis State by 20 points in the first round, then lost to St. John's by 16 in the quarterfinals, ending its win streak at 22. The Titans' game plan consisted of 35-foot howitzer shots by Guard Richie Fuqua, followed by practically free passage to the hoop for the opposition so they could get the ball back and shoot again.
"We'll gladly give up 120 if we can get 140," said Coach Ken Trickey.
ORU brought along its president, evangelist Oral Roberts, who always prays for both teams but puts in a little extra oomph for his own boys. When St. John's powerful forward, Mel Davis, was hurt, Roberts went into the locker room, put his hand on Davis' injured knee and said a prayer. Davis went to the hospital and stayed, but the thought had been a kind one.
Every tournament should have a surprise team and the NIT's this year was Niagara, which had distinguished itself earlier in the season by running up 16-and 17-point leads on St. John's and South Carolina only to lose each game.
Niagara, with no starter tall enough to reach the top shelf of a linen closet, thoroughly enjoyed its role: the poor unknown who was going to be on national TV for the first time, just a bunch of scrappy kids from the neighborhood. No McMillens. No Elmores.
"They're out of our class," said Coach Frank Layden. "We don't go after that rich stuff. We're just a little Catholic school. I met a guy coming up in the elevator and he said that until today he thought Niagara was a starch."
Still, the Purple Eagles did have two good guards, Marshall Wingate and Al Williams, and they had won two Christmas tournaments on their way to an 18-8 record. Two of their losses came after the NIT bid had caused a letdown. They started off beautifully in the tournament, erasing Texas-El Paso by 19 points, then using their new, tough zone defense to help stymie Princeton, whose ace, Brian Taylor, had two subpar games. Next they barely beat St. John's 69-67 on Williams' clutch free throws that might have meant nothing had Davis played.
Maryland's highest hurdle to the final was Jacksonville, whose 7' sophomore center, David Brent, was the first draft pick of the ABA's Memphis Pros. Brent was considered too frail to handle the bull-sized Elmore, so he was assigned to McMillen, who took him outside and scored easily on long jump shots. Brent is by no means ready for the pros, but the Dolphins expect to lose him to the pros anyway (just as Princeton may lose Taylor). Jacksonville's Harold Fox played the best of any guard in the NIT, but he alone could not make up for the 48 points and 26 rebounds collected by Elmore and McMillen. Maryland won by 13 points.
In the final, Niagara managed to make things interesting for a while, even zipping ahead by seven points in the early going, but Maryland tightened its defense, pulled even and moved out by seven at the half. Niagara, fighting to win rather than just hold the score down, began to gamble more and more on its press and the Terps beat it continually for easy shots, many by Jim O'Brien.
Driesell was asked later why he had left his starters in until near the end.
"Man, I ain't ever won a national championship," he said. "I wasn't going to take any chances."
Elmore, a New York export, finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocked shots and broke the school single-season rebounding record, yet he was not named the NIT's Most Valuable Player. That honor went to McMillen, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds and broke the school single-season scoring record set 18 years ago by Gene Shue. But he got some boos along with his MVP trophy.
Reporters crowded around Driesell afterward in hopes of hearing him say something outrageous—like maybe calling UCLA the Maryland of the West. Instead he went into his po'-boy-from-Virginia routine, the mouthful-of-grits one that fools people into believing he learned English by listening to the old Lum and Abner radio show. There is only one senior on his squad and he has another all-universe freshman team coming up, so everyone wanted him to issue a warning for UCLA to look out in 1973. But Driesell was not about to put his foot in there with the grits.
"I just work hard and do my job," he drawled. "The good Lord has been good to me and I have some good kids. I don't have no expectations."
Nevertheless, hope bubbled to the surface right away. Asked if he was going to watch UCLA-Florida State on TV later in the afternoon, McMillen said he thought he would, whereupon Driesell told him: "Get a scouting report for next season."