When the wizards who chose the eight seeded teams had finished wiping the last bit of scrambled egg off their faces, when the Wartburgs and the Winona States and Quinnipiacs had returned to the anonymity that Slippery Rock had momentarily escaped, the oldest, largest and most excruciating basketball tournament in the U.S. belonged to Guilford College of Greensboro, N.C., a most tenacious underdog.
In the first all-Eastern final in the 36-year history of the NATA championship the surprising Quakers won by 99-96 over Maryland-Eastern Shore. Neither team had been expected to get quite that far, though the Marylanders had been seeded eighth and at one point were considered for an at-large bid to the NCAA major-college tournament. Early upsets were the rule: five of the seeded teams were out of it after the first two rounds, including unbeaten and favored Sam Houston State and reigning three-time champion Kentucky State. Not until Guilford met and dumped second-ranked Augustana 77-69 in the semifinals did either of the finalists encounter a seeded opponent. With the favorites falling, some unexpected entries were able to sneak into the tournament's limelight, for a round or two at least.
Among these was fabled Slippery Rock, whose fans set out to convince everyone in Kansas City that their school was no less real than any other entrant. "Oh, yes, there is a Slippery Rock," went the chant as they marched the streets around the Municipal Auditorium, drawing camera crews, bemused Missourians and wary policemen. "You have to understand that Slippery Rock is a dry town," said one Rocket booster. "This is the first time we've ever come here, so we sort of had some celebrating to do." The small but disciplined team had some playing to do, too, and did so rather well before being blown out by Maryland-Eastern Shore 113-82 in the semifinals. "Maybe now our name will mean something," said Coach Mel Hankinson after his team had been awarded the Sportsmanship and Hustle Trophies.
Guilford, with a 24-5 record, was making its fifth trip in eight years to the tournament. "Experience definitely helped us," said Coach Jack Jensen, who in appearance and speech bears a remarkable resemblance to Peter Falk, even without a battered raincoat. "Two of our guys—M.L. Carr and Teddy East—started here three years ago when we went to the semifinals."
March 26, 1973
It was a freshman, however, who sparked the Quakers and became the only first-year man ever to win the tournament's Outstanding Player Award. The whirling, twirling, jumping, pumping moves of Lloyd Free produced 25 points against Augustana and 30 against Maryland-Eastern Shore. "Lloyd is a great one-on-one player, so we try to take advantage of it," said Jensen. "We can do this because Carr is willing to give up part of his game. Lloyd is the kind who can't be happy unless he's getting his share of the points. Even then you have to pat him on the back and tell him how much you love him and need him. Believe me, I've told him." Free developed his game on the playgrounds of Brooklyn's Brownsville section, where he once found himself facing Earl Monroe in a pickup game. Monroe, Free admits, "blew my head off."
Another and much more mysterious contributor to the Guilford championship was Steve Hankins, who twice in the last two games came off the bench when the Quakers were well behind and did not sit down again until they were well ahead. Hankins is not much of a scorer, rebounder or playmaker but he had a magic effect on his teammates that may have had something to do with his credentials. Hankins is a balding, paunchy, 6'6", 28-year-old sophomore who represented the Marine Corps as a pallbearer in President Kennedy's funeral 10 years ago. His armed service career also included a 44-month tour in Vietnam. Despite his experiences, the tattooed veteran was exhilarated by the tournament success. "The only thing that compares with this," he said, "was stepping off' the plane the day I got home from Vietnam."
Maryland-Eastern Shore scored nine more field goals than Guilford but lost three players to personal fouls (another was out with injury) and was outscored by 21 points at the free-throw line. Earlier in the week the Hawks' blitzkrieg style had seemed unbeatable. The key to their offense was long length-of-court passes from Talvin Skinner to Guard Rubin Collins. "The only way you can stop the bomb," moaned one coach who had been destroyed by it, "is to play like a defensive halfback."
"Running up and down is the best way to play, man," Collins had said. "With our speed we can do it against anybody and win."
Eastern Shore brought to the finals the best overall talent in the tournament, including six players with scoring averages between 11 and 18 points per game. But even though all but one of Eastern Shore's players return next year, the NAIA team of the future may be Xavier of Louisiana, the nation's only Catholic University for blacks. It was Xavier that upset Sam Houston in the second round 67-60. In that game sophomore Bruce Seals scored 32 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and nearly stopped the undefeated Bearkats powerful inside game all by himself.
"Seals is playing better than I did," said Coach Bob Hopkins with a smile, "because he gets better coaching than I did." It is Hopkins' little joke: at Grambling in 1956 he became college basketball's alltime leading scorer, setting a record that stood until Travis Grant of Kentucky State surpassed him last year. This was the fourth team Hopkins had taken to Kansas City, two of them being Alcorn A&M in 1967 and 1968. "Black or white," said one of Hopkins' rivals, "Bob is one of the best coaches anywhere."
Until it ran into Hopkins, Seals & Co., Sam Houston had been a strong favorite to win the tournament. A small powerhouse nowadays, the Bearkats had been nowhere in basketball until Coach Archie Porter arrived in Huntsville, Texas nine years ago.
"The attitude among the administration when I got there," Porter says, "was that they didn't want to always be on the bottom of the Lone Star Conference. They just wanted to be representative. Well, I decided that if they fired me it would be for doing something and not sitting on my tail. The first thing I did was go after a black kid even though I was told I shouldn't. I recruited him anyway, got him a family to live with and gave him help under the table so nobody would know he was getting it. He only lasted a semester, but he was so good they got the idea that having blacks wasn't such a bad thing after all. Now there's no problem."
Using somewhat more conventional recruiting methods, Porter developed a team that went 27-0 in the regular season and set an NAIA record with its 34th straight victory over two seasons by defeating Wartburg 88-62 in the tournament's first round.
Augustana's Coach Jim Borcherding suffered two major disappointments in Kansas City, the first and lesser of which was the early elimination of Sam Houston. "I wanted them in the finals," he said, recalling that the only blemish on his team's season was a one-point loss to the Bearkats. His plodding Vikings played poorly, however, barely surviving Hanover and Defiance by a total of four points and getting only one good half in a 17-point win over Oklahoma Baptist before finally losing to Guilford.
But the Augustana coach never took advantage of what might have been a source of help. The Augustana Emergency Center in a nearby hotel was prepared for anything, from posting bail money to arranging tours of the Truman Library. The facility was set up in order to keep track of most of Augustana's 2,100 students who had swooped into town, bringing with them the road sign from in front of the school. They blew kazoos, clicked crickets and held pep rallies at the drop of a Viking helmet—inspired all the while by such slogans as "Swedes Are No Meatballs."
The combination of several thousand Augustana and Slippery Rock students made the consolation game, won by the Vikings 96-93, seem more like a championship. The title game itself was strangely un-noisy since the Maryland and North Carolina schools had no more than 100 hometown rooters there between them. "No matter," said a Guilford fan, whose football team has lost 25 consecutive games. "It's quality rather than quantity that matters."