A double anniversary of sorts passed Wednesday. It was on March 25, 1961, when Ohio State’s powerhouse basketball team was upset by Cincinnati, in overtime, in the NCAA national championship game. And it was on March 25, 1967, when Dayton’s remarkable run was stopped cold in the final by UCLA and Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Over this span, the hegemony of college basketball shifted from Ohio to California. Or, more specifically, to Los Angeles. Even more specifically, to Brentwood.
Perhaps this shift was inevitable, given the now-obvious greatness of UCLA coach John Wooden, not to mention the deep pockets of notorious Bruins booster Ed Gilbert.
In any case, here in Columbus, there are those who still stew over March 25, 1961. In a little room off a hallway in a Kansas City arena, the Buckeyes had to sit while St. Joseph’s and Utah played through four overtimes in the third-place game. The memory remains fresh for Mel Nowell, the terrific Ohio State point guard who is now 80 years old.
“Without a doubt,” Nowell said. “It was horrible to have to sit there. That little room was just full of tension. We were just waiting, waiting, waiting ...”
Ohio has produced 18 Final Four teams. Ohio State has made it to the last weekend of the NCAA Tournament 11 times, Cincinnati six times and Dayton once. Much of this success was concentrated in the 1960s. (Note: Ohio University made its lone Elite Eight appearance in 1964.)
Ohio State was in the championship game in 1960, ’61 and ’62. (The Buckeyes won it in 1960.) Cincinnati was in the championship game in 1961, ’62 and ’63. (The Bearcats beat Ohio State twice and then lost to Loyola on a buzzer-beater in 1963.)
Wooden made it to his first Final Four in 1962 and lost to Cincinnati 72-70 in the semifinals on a bad call, it is said. From 1964 through 1975, Wooden made the Final Four 11 times and won 10 titles. Then he retired. In 1981, Gilbert was banned as a booster; he was posthumously indicted in 1987, accused of running a money-laundering scheme to finance the World Poker Tour. But I digress.
Ohio State’s “Super Sophs” of 1960 Jerry Lucas, John Havlicek and Nowell in the starting lineup, with Bobby Knight and Gary Gearhart as reserves ushered in a golden age. They rolled through the tournament and hammered California 75-55 in the championship game.
Back then, the semifinals were played on Friday and a third-place game and the final were played on Saturday. In the 1961 third-place game, St. Joseph’s beat Utah 127-120 in quadruple overtime. Later, St. Joseph’s was stripped of its bronze due to a point-shaving scandal which is to say that, ultimately, the game didn’t even count. But I digress.
“Sitting there in that little room, we were worn out emotionally,” Nowell said. “Cincinnati players got a chance to walk out and watch one or two of those crazy overtimes. Nobody could’ve expected a second overtime. Nobody could’ve expected the third overtime. It was unbelievable the way it rolled out.
“When the game started, we literally just stood around. We finally did a couple things decent, but we didn’t duplicate it.”
Lucas, who for the second year in a row was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, had some success when he pulled Cincinnati center Paul Hogue out of the post. But Lucas became reluctant to shoot after a miss. Larry Siegfried who would go on to win five NBA titles in seven years with the Boston Celtics hit a couple of jumpers. But then an air ball made him gun-shy. And so forth.
“I had no idea we belonged on the same floor as Ohio State,” Hogue said in a 1988 documentary about the first 50 years of the NCAA Tournament. (YouTube it; it’s a terrific fix for your basketball jones.)
“They had, in my mind, reached gigantic proportions,” Hogue said. “They did not belong in the college game. A super team. But there’s an old adage: If you’re going to beat somebody, beat ’em early. And we looked up, I guess at the 8-minute mark of the first quarter, and we were two or three points behind and all of a sudden this little idea came up.
“We’re thinking, ‘Hey, maybe we can play with these guys after all.’”
Cincinnati coach Ed Jucker was Wooden-like in his ability to craft a game plan to suit his talent.
“Ohio State had great, great athletes,” Jucker says in the documentary. “They had won 32 in a row, and there were many observers, coaches included, who felt we should not even show up for the ballgame.”
Knight scored on a layup to get the game to overtime, but Cincinnati prevailed 70-65. The next year, 1962, Lucas had a serious leg injury when the Buckeyes lost to the Bearcats 71-59 in the championship game. But it is the ’61 game that still gently haunts the old Buckeyes, and their fans.
Siegfried was drafted third overall by the Cincinnati Royals in the ’61 NBA draft, but he would not report. Because Cincinnati. It was like that.