If there was any doubt that the best basketball this year was played in the state of Ohio, it was dispelled last Saturday when the 1962 season closed in a rush of excitement and plaudits for Cincinnati and Dayton. The superbly disciplined Bearcats, who were out to prove for a second time that they were better than neighboring Ohio State, did it convincingly enough, 71-59, in the NCAA finals at Louisville (see page 20), while Dayton's elegant Flyers beat St. John's 73-67 to win the NIT championship in New York.
With 44 seconds to go in New York's Madison Square Garden, St. John's Coach Joe Lapchick strode purposefully to the Dayton bench and graciously offered his congratulations to Coach Tom Blackburn. A moment later, exuberant Dayton fans swarmed out of the stands with a rush that made the Garden floor look like Normandy on D-day. They pounded backs black and blue, hoisted weary but happy Flyers to their shoulders and cheered Blackburn enthusiastically. There was good reason for all this hoopla. After nine failures in the last 11 years, Dayton had beaten a fine St. John's team for its first NIT title.
Blackburn himself was undoubtedly too excited to be thinking about his recent troubles—some of these same enthusiasts had hanged him in effigy after Dayton lost two in a row in January. Perhaps he was reflecting on his own petulant analysis of his team then ("We've got a lousy club"). Most likely, however, he was considering how fortunate he was to have two such splendid sophomores as Bill Chmielewski and Gordy Hatton. They had picked up the desultory Flyers in midseason, brought them into the NIT with a string of seven straight and then hustled them past Wichita and Houston in the early rounds. Chmielewski, a 6-foot-10, 235-pounder sometimes called The Moose, had entranced even the critical Garden habitués with his skill and agility. He rebounded strongly, scored spectacularly with graceful hooks and short jumpers, passed off expertly and defended meticulously. The smaller Gordy Hatton had been a brilliant play-maker, setting up his bigger front-line teammates, driving tirelessly and putting in twisting, squirming lay-ups.
However, Chmielewski did have some first-half difficulties against Loyola of Chicago in the semifinals. The run-and-gun Ramblers clogged up the middle effectively, and Chimmy's shots just wouldn't fall. But the Hatton boys, Gordy and brother Tom, buzzed in and around the rangy Loyolans like busy bees, Garry Roggenburk shot superbly and Dayton managed to stay close. In the second half Chmielewski found the range and Loyola fell apart. He finished with 27 points, Gordy Hatton got 33 and the Flyers won easily 98-82.
Meanwhile, St. John's worked its way into the championship round. The Redmen, operating diligently behind LeRoy Ellis, a skinny 6-foot-10 leaper with a deft touch, rode out a bristling late-game burst by Jack Foley, Holy Cross' snappy jump shooter, to beat the Crusaders 80-74. Then St. John's met Duquesne, which had muscled its way past Bradley 88-85, in the quarter finals. The aggressive Dukes, relying upon their usual clawing, clutching man-to-man and the eye-catching drives and jump shots of Willie Somerset, had St. John's beaten 30-14 after 14 minutes. But Lapchick shrewdly adjusted his offense to open up the middle, and Ellis began to float in his soft hooks, Kevin Loughery and Willie Hall hit from the outside and the Redmen chipped away at the Duquesne lead. They cut it to 36-27 at half time and finally went ahead to stay with five minutes left. But the exasperated Dukes continued to claw and clutch, and the game eventually deteriorated into a fist-swinging brawl before St. John's won 75-65. Duquesne also lost the consolation playoff to Loyola, 95-84.
In the final, played before 16,037, the issue was clearly between Dayton's Chmielewski and St. John's Ellis. For a while it appeared that the Redmen, attacking with the patience that Lapchick admires, would drive the Flyers right out of the ball game. Ellis, Loughery and Ivan Kovac got them off to an 18-11 lead after the first 10 minutes. Then Big Chimmy went to work. With help from 6-foot-7 Harold Schoen and 6-foot-6 Roggenburk, who drifted off their men at every opportunity, he contained Ellis on defense and snapped rebounds away from him underneath both boards. Chmielewski scored 11 points in the next 10 minutes, and Dayton led 35-29 at half time. The precise Flyers' defense forced St. John's into haphazard shots in the second half, and the Redmen never could catch up. Chmielewski (later voted the tournament's Most Valuable Player) outscored Ellis, 24 points to 22, and when St. John's threatened briefly near the end, Gordy Hatton, who had been restrained admirably by Donnie Burks and Kovac, broke away for 11 points in the last 4½ minutes to give Dayton a 73-67 victory. After this performance Coach Blackburn was convinced that his midseason estimate of his team was premature. "The best team I've ever had," said Blackburn.