Even in terms of the two teams' prospects for divine intervention, last week's championship game of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament in Kansas City between Grand Canyon College of Phoenix, Ariz, and Midwestern University of Wichita Falls, Texas shaped up as a standoff.
Bayard Forrest, the 6'10" Grand Canyon center, rejected offers to attend Oregon State, Arizona State and Hawaii. He says he selected Grand Canyon, a Southern Baptist college of well under 1,000 students, "because I wanted to go to a Christian school." Forrest frequently speaks to religious groups on the theme, "You don't have to be a weakling to be a Christian." In Herbie Brisbane, known as The Backdoor Man for his ability to sneak along the baseline for easy layups, Midwestern countered with a licensed Baptist minister.
Secularly, the game was a triumph for Forrest and Grand Canyon, which won 65-54 to run its season record to 30-3. And Forrest, who had 16 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and four blocked shots in the championship game, was declared the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "It was more than we ever expected," he said. "We came here with the goal of winning three games because that meant the NAIA would pay our way to stay for the last two days and we could watch the finals."
Each year the NAIA rounds up 32 good small-college teams, few of which are known outside their home territories. And the teams invariably have aspects so curious that even early-round losers enjoy staying around to find out how all the eccentricities work themselves out. Among those showing up this time was Coach Jay Bowerman of Malone (Ohio) College, who recruited most of his team by mailing 2,000 form letters to high school prospects and ended up playing post office so successfully that his team kissed off heavy pretournament favorite Kentucky State 85-77 before being eliminated itself in the quarterfinals.
Then there was Palm Beach Atlantic (Fla.) College, which has no gymnasium, and George Harris, a 30-year-old, 5'7" guard from St. Mary's (Texas) University. And Edinboro (Pa.) State included in its 21-4 record two victories over Indiana University. Edinboro's victim, it turned out, was from Indiana, Pa., not Bloomington, Ind.
The oddest thing of all about the tournament was Kentucky State's first-round defeat. The Thorobreds came to Kansas City with a 26-2 record, the No. 1 seeding and numerous copies of a 168-page press book subtitled "The Time Is Now." For State, it wasn't. Playing listlessly and with as little cohesion as passion, the Thorobreds lost to unseeded Malone.
Kentucky State's defeat threw the tournament wide open. Both finalists had narrow escapes in second-round games. Fifth-seeded Grand Canyon, behind at the half, came on to defeat Illinois Wesleyan 66-63, while Midwestern trailed Norfolk (Va.) State by one with 1:24 to play. The Indians sank four free throws to win 90-87.
In routing 1974 runner-up Alcorn (Miss.) State 88-68 in the semifinals, Grand Canyon got 34 points, nine rebounds, four assists and eight blocked shots from Forrest. Midwestern, which had knocked out No. 2-seeded Fairmont (W. Va.) State 85-80 in the quarterfinals, again resorted to free throws to beat St. Mary's in the semis, hitting on 17 of 20 in the second half for a 65-60 win.
The final figured to be a classic confrontation between the controlled offense of Grand Canyon and Midwestern's fast break and pressing defense. "We've got to hit early to drive Canyon out of its slow tempo," said Midwestern Coach Gerald Stockton. "Then there's Forrest. He's not only tall, he spreads out." Grand Canyon Coach Ben Lindsey figured his team would have a chance if it could keep Midwestern from getting its inside game working.
Midwestern did not hit early or late, inside or out. It made only 22 of 70 field-goal attempts and 10 of 20 free-throw tries. "Forrest intimidated them underneath, and they couldn't shoot well enough outside to hurt us," said Lindsey. When Midwestern sent a defender to help Isaac DeVore, who gave away three inches guarding Forrest, Grand Canyon passed the ball to the free man. He was usually Mike Haddow, who scored 19 points. Haddow's three-point play with less than five minutes to go and Grand Canyon ahead by five put the game away.
"It was a shame to go all the way to the national finals and then shoot as bad as we did," said Stockton. Lindsey saw it a little differently. "Our aim is to defend well enough to hold our opponents' shooting to around 30%," he said, explaining that, while Grand Canyon's victory was divine, it was definitely by his design.
As soon as the NCAA Division II championship game was over, Old Dominion University students appeared with ladders to use in cutting down the nets at the University of Evansville (Ind.) gym. The fans from Norfolk, Va. had arrived last week so confident of winning the tournament that they not only had their ladders ready, but their victory beer party also was scheduled before the first ball was bounced.
By oozing self-assurance, the Old Dominion crowd left the other spectators wondering if this was a basketball tournament or a Broadway production to which Monarchs' fans had had a sneak preview. Before the final game, the Old Dominionites were saying they would whip the University of New Orleans by at least 20. How could the Privateers stop the fast break that had blitzed highly regarded North Dakota 78-62 and Tennessee State 77-60 in the first two rounds? And how could anybody this side of Superman keep wondrous Wilson Washington from leaping through the roof and one-handing the moon?
"Nothing's going to stop us now," said the 6'9" Washington after intimidating Tennessee State. "We're only 40 minutes away, babe, and we're gonna get it." The trouble was that none of this talk took into account the talents of New Orleans and Ron Greene, its rotund 35-year-old coach.
A notorious snacker, the 6'3" Greene says he cannot stay out of the refrigerator during the season, when nervous tension gets the best of his self-discipline. This year he ballooned to more than 240 pounds. Last week he went on a diet in a desperate attempt to get into tournament form. "Cookies and milk are my downfall," Greene said. "I eat so many Oreos that my wife wrote to Nabisco to see if I could do a commercial. I haven't heard anything yet. Maybe they'll call if we win the national championship."
Greene would have been back home with his cookies if the left-handed bombs of Guard Wilbur Holland, a strong bench and a lot of luck had not carried New Orleans through two one-point wins in the South-Central region. At Evansville, the Privateers scored an easy 73-59 win over California Riverside, but had to struggle from behind to defeat Assumption 84-73 in overtime in the semifinals. Holland scored 22 points in that game, but the players who saved New Orleans came off the bench. Six-foot-eleven Ardith Wearren, 5'6" Jordan Crump and Ernest Stackhouse contributed 34 points against Assumption.
But even Holland had not outshone Washington. In Old Dominion's wins in the first two rounds, the sophomore was omnipresent—reaching far above the rim to snatch rebounds, booming crisp outlet passes to start Dominion's break and dropping in feathery left-handed jumpers. When he wasn't busy with those chores, Washington was bouncing around on his toes, smiling at everyone in sight, clapping his hands and slapping the rears of his teammates, his opponents and even the referees.
The son of a Baptist minister in Norfolk, Washington at first snubbed Old Dominion and went to Maryland, mainly because his hero, Len Elmore, was there. Last season he scrimmaged against Elmore all fall and suited up for the Terps' first two games. Then he dropped out of Maryland and enrolled at Old Dominion. "I was just homesick," he says.
When Washington became eligible in midseason, he turned a good team into a championship one. In the regional at Norfolk, Washington even outperformed Morgan State's Marvin Webster, who is likely to be one of the first two players taken in next month's pro draft.
On championship night, Greene's game plan was to have Guards Holland and Nate Mills bomb at will over Dominion's 2-3 zone. Midway through the second half, the strategy was working beautifully. New Orleans had a 68-65 lead and the ball with 8:04 to go. Then as Wearren shot what appeared to be a sure layup, Washington blocked the ball. On the bench, Greene erupted and got a technical foul. For a few fatal moments, New Orleans lost its poise, and Old Dominion scored nine straight points.
"That was an obvious goaltend," said a red-faced Greene later.
"I didn't goaltend," said Washington. "As soon as he let it go, I got it."
New Orleans eventually pulled itself together, struggled back to within two points and had a chance to send the game into overtime. With a second left to play, Holland fired from the foul line and missed. Final score: 76-74.
While the Monarchs cut down the nets, Greene thundered at his sobbing players, "Hold your heads up, you were robbed." When Washington, who had 21 points and 12 rebounds in the title game, was announced as the Most Outstanding Player, he exploded out of the Old Dominion crowd with the most prodigious leap of the week and wrapped the startled NCAA functionary making the presentation in a bear hug. At last, Old Dominion had shown some spontaneity.