by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

It would surprise many present-day fans that the NCAA Final Four used to be conducted on consecutive nights (Fridays and Saturdays) until 1969, when that year’s Louisville Final Four was contested on a Thursday-Saturday rotation. That ‘69 Final Four was also a breakthrough in that it was the first sold by the NCAA to a major network (NBC) after having syndicated previous championship rounds and games, produced by the NCAA, all of the way through the 1968 Final Four in Los Angeles at the Sports Arena.

So, in 1963, the Final Four was still very much a 24-hour event, conducted over a Friday and Saturday, and it was hit or miss if your city would be televising the games, and if they did so, if they were aired on a live or tape-delayed basis.

Louisville, however, had emerged as a near-perfect venue to host the event, especially since its vast Freedom Hall, with its 19,000-plus seats, opened in the late ‘50s. Moreover, Louisville’s location as a natural for the Final Four, as it had long been a college hoops hotbed, with local Louisville, plus nearby Kentucky, Indiana, and Cincinnati all less than two hours driving distance (even Chicago was only 299 miles north). Schools from the Midwest and South in particular found the location a very convenient one.

The city of Louisville was certainly excited about sports in those days, with local product Cassius Clay moving up the heavyweight rankings and preparing for an elimination bout with Doug Jones at Madison Square Garden on April 13. Freedom Hall, just seven years old at the time, had also emerged as one of the premier basketball facilities in the country, and was hosting its second consecutive Final Four and fourth in six seasons. So it was no surprise that a standing-room only crowd of 19,153 jammed the big arena at the fairgrounds, just a mile or so from Churchill Downs, where Chateaugay, under the poised Panamanian, Braulio Baeza, would win the Kentucky Derby six weeks later.

Distinctive from the era was the layer of cigarette smoke that would waft from the crowd up toward the ceiling of big arenas across the country. Freedom Hall, despite its vastness, was no different, and the thin “haze” in arenas from the day was certainly apparent in the areas above the center-hanging scoreboard and bright, light-colored ceiling of the facility.

The anticipation for an eventual title game matchup between Loyola and Cincinnati had been building for the entire 1962-63 season. Loyola and its racehorse style had broken quickly from the starting gate with a collection of 100+ -point efforts in the first month of the season that made fans across the nation take note. Cincinnati (reviewed in the past on these same pages) was only the two-time defending national champion and participating in its fifth straight Final Four. Indeed, the standard for Final Four excellence that would soon be set by John Wooden’s UCLA was actually first established by the late ‘50s/early ’60s versions of the Bearcats, who had also accumulated a 110-7 record in the previous four seasons heading into the game. The Bearcats were on as impressive a roll as any college team had ever been. Over the last six years, they had won the tough Missouri Valley Conference six times, finished the regular season ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 five times, and reached the Final Four five years running. The first two of those had been on teams featuring the incomparable Oscar Robertson, although those Bearcats had lost in the national semis in back-to-back years vs. Pete Newell’s Cal Bears in 1959 & 1960.

Moreover, it was a style contrast for the ages, with the Bearcats’ ferocious, suffocating man-to-man defense matched against run-and-gun Loyola.

Indeed, the standard for Final Four excellence that would soon be set by John Wooden’s UCLA was actually first established by the late ‘50s/early ’60s versions of the Bearcats.

The national semifinals on Friday night were not much more than preliminaries for the big show on Saturday. In the opener, Loyola wasted little time jumping on Duke, led by All-American F Art Heyman (who just recently passed away), racing to a 44-31 halftime edge. Though the Blue Devils did mount a threat midway through the second half, cutting the deficit to three points, the vaunted Rambler transition game again detonated down the stretch as George Ireland’s Loyola rolled to a 94-75 romp. Meanwhile, the Bearcats demolished Slats Gill’s Oregon State by a whopping 80-46 count in the nightcap. Cincy led by only three points at halftime, 30-27, and OSU cut the lead to one with the first basket after the break. But when the Beavers’ 7'0 C Mel Counts (old Laker and Celtic fans have to remember the Coos Bay, OR native!) fouled out early in the second half, the Bearcats ran roughshod, eventually outscoring OSU 50-19 in the second half. Moreover, Cincy HC Ed Jucker was able to practically clear his Cincy bench and rest his starters late in the game, with 11 Bearcats seeing action.

Indeed, many college fans might be surprised to know that Cincy didn’t start to win NCAA titles until the “Big O” had graduated to the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals. Jucker, who was promoted to the head coaching job when George Smith retired following the Big O’s senior season, changed Cincy from a racehorse-style team that scored 90 ppg in Robertson’s days to a methodical, disciplined outfit that instead wore down its opposition. Jucker had to do a sales job on sorts such as Tom Thacker, whose flashy tendencies had to be curbed, and Ron Bonham, whose shot selection was altered (Bonham, who entered Cincy never seeing a shot he didn’t like, slowly came around to Jucker’s thinking). Jucker replaced star 6'9 C Paul Hogue from the ‘61 and ’62 title teams by moving 6'8 F George Wilson to center, while switching the explosive 6'2 Thacker from guard to forward and bringing in heady 5'10 Larry Shingleton to run the offense. Shingleton’s backcourt mate, Tony Yates, who would eventually become Cincy’s coach in the ‘80s, was considered one of the best perimeter defenders in the game, while the other starter, Bonham, was one of the best pure shooters in the country, and led Cincy scorers at 20.7 ppg. (Editor’s note: We have written previously about the 1960-61 Bearcat NCAA title team on these pages; check TGS website archives.)

In the 1962-63 season, the Bearcats were ranked number one from the pre-season poll to the final poll of the year, often receiving a unanimous number one vote. They allowed a nation’s-low 51.9 ppg while drawing only 13 fouls pg, a remarkably-low number. They had also forged a 37-game winning streak lasting well over a year before losing to a dangerous Wichita State team by one point on the road. And then they recovered to win their next seven in a row to meet Loyola in the NCAA Tournament Final with a 29-1 record. Under Jucker, Cincinnati had a perfect 11-0 NCAA Tournament record heading into the game with the Ramblers—and the Bearcats had won against superior-ranked talent (Ohio State) the previous two years.

Another standing room-only crowd—the majority of them Bearcat fans who drove just over 100 miles for the coronation on Cincinnati's great season—showed up in Louisville. The game, with veteran Bill Flemming at the TV play-by-play microphone, was televised live in many parts of the country, but in Chicago, WGN-TV—the Tribune-owned station—decided to show the game on tape delay following the NHL Blackhawks game, while others in Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state were entranced by the Carver-Centralia game for the Illinois High School State Championship at the brand-new Assemby Hall in Champaign-Urbana. For those Loyola fans and others interested in Chicago who couldn’t wait for the tape delay, they had to settle for Red Rush’s radio play-by-play on WCFL-AM.

Watching the first 28 or so minutes of the game, it would be hard to imagine how Loyola could win. The Ramblers were having no luck getting the shots they wanted vs. the vaunted Bearcat defense, which was succeeding spectacularly in its first objective, to slow the pace, as well as its second objective, to completely disrupt the Rambler offense. Jerry Harkness was being shackled by Tony Yates, and most of the other Loyola players were doing little on offense, either.

The pattern began early, as the Bearcats controlled the opening tip and methodically worked the ball to the inside, where George Wilson made the first two Cincinnati points with an emphatic dunk off a missed shot. With the score 4-4, the Bearcats took advantage of miserable Loyola field goal shooting to open up a 12-5 lead with 9:56 left in the first half. Cincy’s All-American Ron Bonham scored five of the Bearcats’ points on their 8-1 run. The Ramblers had only one field goal, a lean-in jumper by Ron Miller, in an 11-minute stretch of futility. Loyola grimly stayed within earshot only because of some stellar defensive work that featured two blocked shots by Hunter and another by Harkness that kept Cincinnati from running away and hiding.

Jucker’s methodical offense worked to near perfection. The Bearcats were scoring off screens, cuts to the basket, offensive rebounds, and trips to the charity stripe courtesy of Loyola's fouls borne of frustration. Cincinnati opened a 19-9 lead with less than six minutes left in the first half. But Loyola cut into the Bearcats’ lead in the closing minutes of the half with five points from Les Hunter, four from Vic Rouse, and three from John Egan to cut the deficit to 29-21 at the break. While Bonham was fantastic for the Bearcats in the first half, scoring 11 of Cincy’s 29 points, Loyola shot poorly in the first 20 minutes, missing 13 of its first 14 shots from the field. The Ramblers simply couldn’t find any space on the floor to shoot against the number one defensive team in the country. There were no open jump shots, only a few chances off the dribble that didn't go down. Many of the Ramblers shots were wild rebound tips off missed jumpers. Even more troubling was the fact that Loyola's consensus All-American—Harkness, who entered scoring better than 21 ppg—had not made a single field goal in the first half. Indeed, Loyola was lucky to be trailing by only eight points at the break.

The Ramblers scored the first two points of the second half, and then after a jumper by Tom Thacker restored Cincinnati’s eight-point lead, Hunter scored on an offensive rebound. On Cincy’s next possession, Loyola's full-court press forced a turnover, and the Ramblers had a chance to cut the deficit to four. But Hunter's missed shot off the glass came down into Tony Yates’ hands, and the Bearcats were off to the races. Yates hit 20-foot jumper; Thacker hit a “leaping Lena” eight footer; Ron Bonham was wide open for a lay-up under the basket. The Ramblers, who had at one me early in the half had a chance to cut the lead to four, now found but themselves down 37-25 against the best defensive team in the nation. Within three minutes, the score had ballooned to 45-30. Now ahead by 15 points with fewer than 12 minutes remaining until their third consecutive title, the Bearcats could begin their vaunted stall. Hardly the position in which Loyola looked as if it was going to pull the upset.

“At that point, I was angry, not at anybody in particular, just at us in general,” G John Egan recalled in a later interview. “I was probably more outspoken than anyone about the value of our team, the quality of our team-and I really believed it, I wasn't just saying it. And to get that far and not perform, that just gave me a sickening feeling.”

Something else, however, started to happen at just about that time. Cincinnati began to encounter some unaccustomed foul trouble. Along with the conservative Jucker ordering his team to dial-down the pace even further and utilize his “outside-weave” offense (the Jucker version of the Dean Smith four-corners), the Bearcats, so dominant for 28 minutes, suddenly began to wobble. George Wilson picked up three quick fouls (which seemed quite harmless to most observers) and had to be replaced by backup frontliner Dale Heidotting at the 10 minute mark; Heidtotting would be the only substitute to play in the game. Tony Yates also picked up a few quick fouls; Thacker and Bonham had each incurred their second and third fouls earlier in the half. These sorts of problems were not customary for the Bearcats, who as mentioned were the least-penalized team in the nation. The mounting foul problems might also have had something to do with Jucker slamming on the brakes, which also effectively took the hot shooting Bonham out of the offensive flow; Bonham did not make a field goal in the final 14 minutes of regulation time.

Meanwhile, the Ramblers sensed an opening, and turned up the heat on the full-court press. Loyola cut the margin to 45-33 at the 10 minute mark. The score was still 47-35 with 8:38 left to play after Ron Miller's second basket of the game, and 48-37 with 7:38 left to play. But a jumper by Rouse, an offensive foul by Thacker, and two free throws by Les Hunter, and suddenly the score was 48-41 with six minutes left. This was the rally Loyola’s fans had been waiting for, one that seemed unlikely just a few minutes earlier!

The fightback continued. After a missed Yates free throw, Hunter controlled the rebound, and on the next trip downcourt, Harkness hit on a turnaround jumper from just inside the free throw line—his first field goal of the game—to cut Cincy's lead to 48-43 with just under five minutes left to play. Any heretofore neutrals in the crowd began to threw their support behind the Ramblers. After a ho-hum first 40 minutes of action, tension was suddenly mounting—quickly—in Freedom Hall.

Harkness’ basket, in particular, was an awakening, and seemed to undermine the confident Bearcats. As Cincinnati brought the ball upcourt, Harkness stepped into the passing lane to intercept the ball, and he took it straight to the hoop for an easy lay-up. After more than 35 minutes without a field goal, Harkness had two in six seconds. Now it was a three-point game with 4:24 remaining!

After two free throws by Bonham came a crucial moment in the game, as the Bearcats, up five, could have regained control with another defensive stop. Again, however, the phantom foul burned the Bearcats’ Yates, who was whistled (late, it must be added) for pushing off on a Loyola missed shot, sending Harkness to the line where he made the first of two FTs, although the ball was tipped out of bounds by Cincy on the rebound. The Ramblers held possession, and the suddenly-hot Harkness scored on a seven-foot jumper over a double-team to make it 50-48 with 2:42 left in the contest. Cincinnati went back into the stall yet again, looking to eat the clock, forcing Harkness to step out and foul Yates. Yates hit the first free throw, but missed the second shot, although teammate George Wilson controlled the rebound. Forced to foul, Ron Miller stepped out to foul Yates, but the Cincinnati G missed on his first shot, and a determined Hunter skied for the rebound. Quickly downcourt, Harkness worked into the lane for a six-foot floater that was flyswatted by George Wilson...who was called for goaltending. Remarkably, the Bearcats’ lead had been cut to 51-50 with just over a minute left to play!  The roar had become deafening inside of Freedom Hall!

For a moment, however, Cincy looked as if it might dodge the proverbial bullet, as Loyola, thinking steal on the inbounds pass following the goaltending call, was instead burned on a long baseball pass to Thacker, who scored on a lay-in to up the score to 53-50. The Ramblers hurried upcourt, only to see Hunter miss off the rim from ten feet, and suddenly Cincy had the ball and a chance to open a 55-50 lead with precious time ticking off the clock. Thacker dribbled the ball to the free throw line, but instead of pulling the ball back to let time tick off the clock, under the basket he found a wide-open Yates, who drove toward the bucket to perhaps put the game on ice. Out of nowhere, however, flew Loyola’s Vic Rouse to flyswat the Yates shot. Goaltending, right? But no call!

With possession, but still down three and time running out, Harkness brought the ball upcourt, and missed a short jumper. The ever-present Hunter, however, was there for a crucial tip-in to once again cut the margin to 1 point (53-52) with 15 seconds to play. As soon as the ball was inbounded, Harkness fouled Shingleton to put the 5'10" Cincinnati guard on the line with 12 seconds left in the game. Shingleton made the first shot to put the Bearcats up by two. One more free throw could put the game out of reach for the Ramblers; even Vic Rouse seemed to sense the end was at hand, and offered a congratulation of sorts to Bonham. Shingleton, however, missed the second free throw (“You know, if I’d made that shot, I could probably have been the youngest senator in the history of the state of Ohio,” said the pleasant-mannered Shingleton when he spoke at his home). Hunter rebounded and quickly outletted to Miller; in another pivotal call (or non-call) going Loyola’s way, Miller might have traveled (“He walked from here to that wall,” Jucker would later say) but no call was made. (We’ve watched the film countless times and will say it was inconclusive.) Across midcourt, Miller flipped the ball to Harkness, who canned a 12-foot jumper to finally level the score at 54 apiece with 6 seconds to play! Unable to hear Jucker’s appeal for a timeout above the din of the crowd, the Bearcats couldn’t advance the ball, and overtime ensued.

In the extra period, the Ramblers turned the tables on the Bearcats. Harkness opened the overtime period with a quick basket on a feed from Hunter to give Loyola its first lead of the entire game. After George Wilson countered for Cincy on a lay-up, Miller made a 25-foot rainbow jumper to put Loyola in front again, 58-56. After a couple of empty possessions, Thacker rebounded a Loyola miss and hit Shingleton for a breakaway lay-up, leveling matters at 58 with 2:15 left to play. Now it was time for Loyola to hold the ball for a final shot against the team that was most notorious for the stall!

After a timeout with 1:49 to play, Egan, Loyola's best ball handler, dribbled around the halfcourt for a few seconds, passing the ball to Miller, Harkness, Rouse, and then back to Miller again. It was apparent that the Ramblers were going to wait for a last opportunity to put up a late shot for the win. But Loyola was not suited to playing Cincinnati's stall game-Loyola was built to run and shoot, not dribble and hold. Only two and a half years earlier, Miller was a center—not accustomed to dribbling and passing the ball. And in those days, Miller could not dribble the ball with his left hand if his life depended upon it. As he attempted to pass the ball back to Egan with 1:20 left to play, disaster struck.

The ball squirted away from Egan, and rolled along the floor toward the center of the court. Several players dived in to get a hand on the ball. Cincinnati's Shingleton corralled the ball, but only just before a desperate Egan got his hands on it for a jump ball.

In one of the last defining moments of the game, Egan controlled the jump and Ron Miller got control of the tip in the backcourt, immediately getting the ball to the better ball handlers. Harkness dribbled off several seconds before passing back to Egan, who passed it back to Harkness, who made half-hearted drives toward the lane before shoveling the ball off to Miller. Then Miller passed the ball back to Egan to start the process over again.

With eight seconds left, Egan passed the ball to Harkness on the left wing. Harkness dribbled and took three strides, guarded closely by Ron Bonham. Momentarily losing grip on the ball, Harkness instead passed to Hunter, about 10 feet out, just left of the lane, where Hunter put up a rainbow jumper with 4 seconds to play that bounced off the front of the rim up onto the glass. Vic Rouse was shoulder to shoulder with George Wilson, and the ball caromed past Wilson off the glass toward Rouse, who got both hands on the ball and laid it in neatly off the glass just before the buzzer sounded!

But some folks, including just about every Loyola fan that couldn't make it to Louisville, listened to Red Rush call the game on WCFL radio. When the radio listeners learned that Loyola was the 1963 NCAA National Basketball Champions, Chicagoland television viewers were still watching the Ramblers' first half futility on the one-hour delay!

Back at Freedom Hall, there was a bit of disbelief on each side, and with good reason. Almost everyone in the building must have expected that Jerry Harkness was going to take the last shot for Loyola. When Cincinnati's defense collapsed on Harkness to leave Hunter open for a jumper from ten feet out, it was a gamble that the Bearcats were willing to take. A missed shot from Hunter probably meant that there would be a second overtime, especially after the Bearcats had dominated the boards much of the night. The tip-in by Rouse was the result of a lucky bounce and great execution from a player that had been considered fully defended out of the play.

After spending a mostly-sleepless night at Louisville's elegant Brown Hotel, the Ramblers boarded a charter plane to return to Chicago the next morning. Several hundred fans and Mayor Richard Daley greeted the Ramblers at new O'Hare Airport, which he had helped christen with President Kennedy the previous week. “I was dumbfounded by the reaction (in Chicago),” said Miller. “I didn't expect Mayor Daley to be greeting us at the airport.” As for Daley’s appearance, that shouldn’t have been a surprise; it was a great photo opportunity before an election just two weeks away. After greeting the victorious Ramblers, Daley went to Carver High School to shake more hands—they had an even larger celebration for the state high school championship at Carver than they did at Loyola, where a crowd of 3000 or so students and fans waited to cheer the conquering Ramblers.

Of course, at the other end of the tale was a bitterly disappointed Cincinnati, its once-in-a-lifetime chance at a three-peat dashed. To this day, many of the Bearcats are embittered about the late-game officiating. And even Loyola’s Jerry Harkness acknowledged that the Ramblers had gotten some breaks. “We might have gotten a little lucky with some of those calls late in the game,” Harkness recounted to us in our not-long-ago interview.

Or was it a bit more than luck? Some of the more cynical Bearcat insiders wondered if there might not have been a little more than meets the eye when Cincy started to get the brunt end of all of the whistles in the second half. There was talk at the time that Jucker would be in position to coach the College All-Star squad at the next year’s 1964 Olympic Trials had the Bearcats won the game; the Olympic team was determined in an 8-team tourney in those days, with the All-Star team the overwhelming favorite to win, and the winning coach would also be the Olympic coach. A handful of players would then be selected from other non-winning squads to complete the full squad for the following October in Tokyo. But there were NCAA interests who were reportedly very keen on Hank Iba, the longtime coach at Big 8 Oklahoma State, getting the assignment instead. Was there a reason for the NCAA to not want Jucker to win?

Highly unlikely, we suspect, even though most of the fouls against the Bearcats in the second half were whistled by veteran referee Alex George, a native of Kansas City, where the NCAA was headquartered in those days. Still, any evidence qualifies as circumstantial at best. A look at the final stat tallies showed that both teams were whistled for 17 fouls, hardly an indicator of anything amiss. Loyola did enough on its own to let the Bearcats win; the Ramblers’ field goal shooting was abysmal, missing an astounding 61 of 84 shots (27%!) from the floor. The most telling stat of the game, however, might have been turnovers; however flummoxed the Ramblers were by Cincy, they were only guilty of three turnovers for the entire game, compared to 16 for the Bearcats. The All-American Tom Thacker, in particular, was guilty of sloppiness with 7 turnovers. While the sequence of the fouls against Cincy, and their timing at crucial points of the game, angered the Bearcats, they still had plenty of opportunities to win, and likely would have done so had Shingleton made his second free throw of the one-and-one with 12 seconds to play (though Shingleton and his gutty effort can hardly be blamed for the defeat).

And for us, after watching the grainy NCAA tape of the game as if it were the Zapruder film, our conclusion is that the referees (especially Alex George) simply had a bad night. Loyola gave Cincinnati plenty of chances. But, in the final minutes of the game, most of the big plays were simply made by the Ramblers, who never surrendered even when the situation looked hopeless midway through the second half. Credit George Ireland for keeping the team believing it could rally. And we suspect that Ed Jucker’s over-cautious strategy ended up costing the Bearcats, too.

Were the 1962-63 Ramblers one of the best college teams of all time? Perhaps not. But they were one of the most entertaining, most interesting, and eventually, most accomplished off the court, as their ranks were filled with players who enjoyed great success, with numerous graduate degrees and successful careers away from the game. As for George Ireland, he would coach into the mid ‘1970s at the school, and many believe he deserves a place in the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA. At some point in the near future, this oversight from the Hall might be rectified.

In conclusion, the Ramblers were about a quarter-century too early to get an anthem like CBS’s “One Shining Moment” dedicated to them at the end of the tournament. But we don’t know of a championship team that was ever more worthy of the tune!

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