Long before it became known as March Madness, before bracketology, the infamous “bubble” and Dick Vitale, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament came to Buffalo.
Sixty years ago, Monday, March 8, 1954, Memorial Auditorium was the venue for a classic NCAA first-round doubleheader in the East Regional.
In an era before the shot clock and three-point baskets, four teams thrilled the Aud crowd of 5,655 with two high-scoring performances.
Navy defeated Connecticut, 85-80, in the first game, and La Salle edged Fordham, 76-74 in overtime.
The games featured some of the most historically significant performers in each of the four schools’ basketball history – Tom Gola of La Salle, Ed Conlin of Fordham, John Clune and Don Lange of Navy and Worthy Patterson and Art Quimby of Connecticut.
With Gola winning Most Outstanding Player honors, La Salle went on that year to win the only NCAA championship in its history. The Explorers went 26-4 with two of the losses, interestingly enough, to Niagara.
Hall of Famer Gola was headline player of the doubleheader. As a freshman in 1952, he had helped the Explorers win the NIT. In 1955 he led La Salle to another NCAA championship game but this was the start of the Bill Russell-University of San Francisco Dons championship run. USF defeated the Explorers, 77-63, in the title game and went on to win again in 1956.
The game in the Aud was the first of 10 NCAA games Gola played for La Salle in 1954 and ’55. After scoring 28 points here, he scored 26, 22, 19 and 19 points in ’54 and 22, 24, 30, 23 and 16 the next year when the Explorers’ championship reign ended in the final.
Gola was not the only name player on the card.
He dueled with Fordham’s Conlin, a 6-foot-5 forward who still owns the Rams’ career scoring (1,886) and rebounding (1,930) records. Fordham was coached by young John Bach, who later spent many years as a first assistant on the Chicago Bulls bench alongside Phil Jackson. La Salle was coached by Hall of Famer Ken Loeffler.
Before David Robinson came along in the 1980s, Clune and Lange were the two greatest players in Navy history. Also, the Midshipmen were coached by Ben Carnevale, who had family ties to Buffalo.
Clune came from a noted basketball family in Jersey City, N.J. He went on to have a long military career and later became athletic director at the Air Force Academy. Lange became a Marine officer and retired in Baltimore.
Connecticut wasn’t supposed to be in the field. Holy Cross was the favorite to earn the District I (New England) berth in the regional but UConn scored a late-season upset of the Crusaders on their home floor, in Worcester, Mass., to steal the bid. A driving shot along the baseline by Patterson gave the Huskies what was then their biggest basketball win ever, 78-77.
UConn beat perhaps the best Holy Cross team ever, and that includes the 1947 NCAA championship team with freshman star Bob Cousy. The Crusaders’ lineup included sophomore center Tom Heinsohn, senior forward Togo Palazzi and crafty senior guard Ronnie Perry Sr. It was one of only two losses Holy Cross suffered all season. The other was by two points to Notre Dame in Boston Garden. Holy Cross went on to win the NIT, beating the Dick Ricketts-Sihugo Green led Duquesne Dukes in the championship game.
UConn’s star was Quimby, a 6-5 center who led the nation in rebounding in both ’54 and ’55 with averages of 22.6 and 24.4. The Huskies had lost only to Fordham and Colgate in the regular season.
In an interview years later, Patterson asserted that had it been up to the UConn players, they would have elected to go to the NIT because many of them came from the New York City area. However, they were overruled by the administration.
Clune was sensational for Navy in the victory over Connecticut, scoring 42 points, at the time the highest individual point total in a game between four-year colleges in the history of the Aud. He was 10 for 11 at the foul line. Lange had 18. Patterson led UConn with 21 points before fouling out. Quimby had 19.
Also of historical significance: Patterson was the only African-American player on the four teams.
La Salle versus Fordham was a classic. Trailing by two, Fordham apparently was setting up a last shot for Conlin. Instead the ball went to guard Ed Parchinski. His shot missed but forward Danny Lyons tipped it home for a 68-66 lead. Down two with 5 seconds left in regulation, Gola whipped a halfcourt pass to Fran O’Malley for the basket that sent the game to overtime and saved La Salle’s season.
With his 28 points, Gola led all five La Salle starters in double figures. Conlin did not disappoint either. He led the losing Rams with 26.
Sadly, most of the heroes from that night have passed on. Gola, an all-time Philadelphia sports hero, died just this past January. Navy’s Clune and Lange and Fordham’s Conlin and UConn’s Quimby all had gone before him. Patterson, author of the upset for UConn, is retired in California after a long career in the sales and promotion side of the recording industry.
And even the old Aud is gone, too, leaving behind so much sports drama, history and memories.