For 39 years the NAIA basketball tournament in Kansas City, Mo. has been a gathering ground where small college teams with modest budgets and no national acclaim whatsoever come together and accomplish in six days what the NCAA takes more than two weeks to do. But crowning an NAIA champion is an exhausting process. As the 32-team field had at it last week, one could almost hear Gig Young at Kemper Arena droning, "Yowsa, yowsa. Just look at 'em dance." A team could lose once and go home disappointed or win five and go home ready to drop dead. They shoot horses, don't they?
The survivor-winner of the marathon was ninth-seeded Coppin State of Baltimore, which defeated sixth-seeded Henderson State of Arkadelphia, Ark. 96-91 in the finals. The losers just could not handle the pace. More precisely, they could not handle Joe Pace. The 6'11", 225-pound senior scored 43 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked six shots despite a sprained ankle that would have kept him out of a less important game.
"I knew we'd win if I played," Pace said modestly after accepting the MVP award. In Coppin's first four victories, the NAIA's third-leading rebounder averaged 27 points and 14 rebounds a game while the starting centers opposing him totaled 21 points and 15 rebounds. Pace is a monster-movie fan, and last week he played like King Kong in high-top sneakers.
This was the second NAIA appearance in four years for the tandem of Pace and his coach, John Bates. But in 1973, when they reached the finals and lost, they were representing Maryland-Eastern Shore. Their change of address occurred following the 1974 season when Eastern Shore accepted an invitation to become the first black school to play in the NIT. Not only did the Hawks lose in the second round there but the NAIA put them on probation for standing up their scheduled opponent, Coppin State of all people, in the NAIA district playoffs.
March 22, 1976
Bates, as it happened, was not too happy at Eastern Shore anyway. The school's limited finances had allowed him to recruit only one player the previous two years—Pace. So Bates found more congenial surroundings at Coppin State. Pace came along, too, telling his coach, "You said you'd take care of me for four years. How can you do that if we aren't at the same school?" Bates did not argue.
Coppin State, a predominantly black, state-supported school with 3,000 students, turned out to have its own limitations, however. The gymnasium floor was four feet shorter than standard and scholarships were awarded only on a need basis. Bates took the job with the understanding that both of the deficiencies would be remedied.
They haven't been yet, but the Eagles have done very well anyway. After missing out in the district playoffs last year, they reached the nationals last week with a 34-2 record and the Potomac Conference championship. As for Maryland-Eastern Shore, in the two years since Bates and Pace packed up it has won four games. Total.
Bates arrived in Kansas City with a load of confidence and "six changes of clothes." "This is Joe's tournament," he said early in the week. "He's gonna win it." And Pace almost did the job single-handedly. The Eagles breezed past Dow-ling in their opening game 78-55. In the second, they trailed Wisconsin-Parkside 67-60 with 3:30 remaining. But the Eagles got a basket and Pace hit five straight free throws. The last two, with 16 seconds remaining, won the game 68-67. The following night Pace scored 31 points, blocked seven shots and collected 17 rebounds as Coppin pulled away from Texas Southern in the last five minutes of an 88-77 win. "That's as well as he's ever played," said Bates. "There shouldn't be any doubts about him after a game like that."
The semifinal defeat of Marymount turned out to be another squeaker. With 11:25 remaining and a 68-64 lead, Coppin seemed to have the game under control. Then Pace aggravated his bad left ankle and had to be helped off to the dressing room. When he made a dramatic return almost five minutes later, the Eagles still led, 73-72, but with five seconds left they trailed 81-80. Bates called time-out with the idea of setting up Pace for a shot underneath. Instead, Pace took the inbounds pass near midcourt, dribbled twice and threw up a 25-footer. He fell flat on his seat as he fired, but the ball swished through. And Coppin was in the finals.
Almost the same sort of heroics were required of Pace against Henderson. The Reddies jumped off to an eight-point lead in the first four minutes and Pace, slowed by his ankle, asked to be taken out. But after watching the deficit reach 11 points in the next three minutes he told Bates he would try again. Two more minutes went by before Pace scored his first basket, but the score seemed to get him untracked. Intimidating on defense and dominating on offense, he scored 15 points in a row and had 21 in the half to cut Henderson's lead to 52-48 by the break.
Three minutes into the second half Coppin took the lead for good, 56-55. Pace continued to control the inside game, showing emotion only once, when one of the Reddies' little guards shoved-him in frustration after having a shot blocked.
The Eagles went to their delay game to protect a seven-point lead with 3:41 remaining and held on to win by converting six straight one-and-ones. "I've always said that games are won on free throws and layups," said Bates. "We got plenty tonight."
In winning, Coppin contributed to the week-long trend of results that made a mockery of the seedings. Four of the 16 seeds were out of it after the first round and seven more after the second, including unbeaten and top-ranked Fairmont State of West Virginia and the No. 2 team, defending champion Grand Canyon of Arizona. Stealing their limelight were unheralded teams like Lincoln Memorial of Harrogate, Tenn., which would have reached the finals but for a double-overtime loss to Henderson.
Just a few years ago Lincoln Memorial was on the edge of financial extinction and a decision had been made to shut down the basketball program. But a new president, Frank Welch, saved the school, doubling the enrollment, and a new coach, Jack Jackson, rescued the team, bringing it to Kansas City in his first season. Of course, neither operation was hurt when Colonel Sanders gave a finger-lickin' good donation of $500,000 to the school's Abraham Lincoln library and museum.
On the other hand, consider the plight of West Florida last week. After losing in the opening round of its first NAIA tournament appearance ever, the Argonauts returned home to learn that the school's entire athletic program had been shut down for lack of funds.
Welcome to the NAIA.