It was a nice ceremony, sort of peaceful and dignified right up to the end, when Penn Guard James Salters stepped up to the free-throw line and finally laid St. John's to rest. Salters' two free throws with 23 seconds to play and the score tied gave the Quakers a 64-62 victory in the East Regional championship game at Greensboro, N.C. last Sunday. But say this much for the Redmen: they didn't die easy.
St. John's had been found face up and barely breathing a number of times before. It had to win nine of its last 11 games to get a surprise bid to the NCAA tournament, and during the early rounds the Redmen looked ready to expire before struggling back to beat Temple, Duke and Rutgers. But Penn was too much to overcome. The Quakers were quick, especially in the backcourt, and their forwards, Tony Price and Tim Smith, stabbed the ball into the basket from long range when needed. But more than anything else, Penn was smart. "They'd better be smart," said St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca. "Someday they'll be controlling our country."
Despite being from the Ivy League, the Quakers didn't acquire their reputation for braininess until they defeated North Carolina two weeks ago. Down in ACC territory, the locals assume that any team that beats one of their own must be doing it with something sneaky, like intelligence. This reputation for being cerebral instead of good will probably follow Penn all the way to Salt Lake City, but the Quakers insist they put their mortarboards on one leg at a time. "We've shown that we have the ability to play with anybody," says Salters. "We may be smart, but we make mistakes, too. When we beat a team, it's because we've outplayed them at basketball. Intelligence alone doesn't win games."
The Quakers needed all the guile they could summon to beat the Redmen. St. John's Forward Ron Plair had hit all nine of his shots, until his follow-up of Gordon Thomas' follow-up of Tom Calabrese's miss with 10 seconds remaining rattled harmlessly away. It was the last shot the Redmen would get. The 6'7" Price, who played an otherwise impeccable game and finished with 21 points, missed a free throw with three seconds left, but St. John's was unable to get off another heave at the hoop.
Victory was almost more than Penn could dare ask for, though it certainly deserved its championship. When Sunday dawned and only six teams were still alive in the race for the national title, it was almost satisfaction enough for Pennsylvania and St. John's to find their names still on the list. The Redmen and the Quakers had not been considered exactly the roses of Eastern basketball this year; in fact, as the ninth and 10th seeds, respectively, in their region, they were, if anything, the lilies of the field. St. John's had been the last of the 40 teams invited by the tournament selection committee, and poor old Penn was having to put up with one indignity after another. At Thursday's semifinal games, for instance, vendors were selling Penn State buttons, though not a lot of them.
The reception that all four Eastern semifinalists received down in ACC country following Penn's upset of North Carolina and St. John's victory over Duke a week earlier was summed up by The Greensboro Record in a front-page story that called the invaders from the North, "These huns from Siberia." Without an area team left in the tournament. the 15,683-seat Coliseum didn't rock. It rolled over and played dead. There were only 9,102 fans there for Friday's games, and then things got bad. Because Sunday's game was televised nationally, the Coliseum P.A. announcer made a pitiful request to the crowd for some noise, and what he got was the sound of one hand clapping. When the attendance of 7,216 was announced, the crowd booed itself.
This, then, was the regional in which everyone—including the arena—was an underdog; in which brains triumphed over brawn; and in which St. John's Center Wayne McKoy proved that he was "not just another big slunk out there."
It had been McKoy, after all, who had gotten the Redmen into the title game by banking in a shot with five seconds to go for a 67-65 win over Rutgers. After trailing by 10 points in the first half, St. John's had won because Scarlet Knight Center James Bailey, who had put on a shooting clinic in the first half, scored two points during the final 17 minutes. For reasons known only to the Rutgers guards, Bailey seldom touched the ball in the second half, and when he did he was swallowed by St. John's zone, a defense Carnesecca, an ardent man-to-man man, had gone to in desperation.
In the other semifinal, Penn, with Price scoring 20 points, made surprisingly easy work of Syracuse, which had become the overwhelming favorite to win the regional once the ACC had been dispatched. The Quakers were helped by a bizarre officiating error late in the second half. In the midst of an Orange rally that shaved a 17-point deficit to five, the refs didn't allow Penn to shoot what should have been a one-on-one free-throw opportunity. It was almost a minute later, when the Quakers were fouled again, that the officials realized their mistake and ruled it a "correctable error." Penn was thus awarded four foul shots, all of which were made to throttle the Syracuse comeback. "Penn didn't surprise me," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim after losing 84-76. "I'm not from North Carolina. I know they're good."
Now Michigan State and perhaps Indiana State or DePaul will get a chance to find out if the Quakers are the best—or just the brightest.