For 42 years the NAIA basketball tournament has violated almost every precept of show business during its annual six-day-and-night stand in Kansas City, Mo. Broadway, for instance, will not soon imitate the NAIA practice of premiering on a Monday at 9:30 a.m. with a cast of 384 who are known only to NBA scouts. But that's the style of the NAIA, a cheap ticket, low-budget, 32-team tournament apparently staged for the 25-watt radio stations of the little towns of Middle America. Despite this, the NAIA is a cracking good show with enough shocks to rival Alfred Hitchcock, and for the unsung small-school athlete, playing the NAIA is like playing the Palace.
So it was last Saturday night in Kemper Arena as Drury College of Springfield, Mo. won the NAIA championship by beating Henderson State of Arkadelphia, Ark. 60-54. That the tournament title went to third-seeded Drury was no great surprise, least of all to Lawrence Washington and Mike Carter, who probably contributed most to its acquisition. Washington, a 6'1" guard who won the MVP award, led the Panthers in assists, heads-up floor play and aggressive defense and hauled down 15 rebounds against Henderson. Carter, an enthusiastic 6'8" center from Eagle Rock, Calif., got the hustle award.
Drury's title-game victory was marked by blown layups, missed passes, 40% shooting and 15 turnovers, thus qualifying as the least elegant Panther performance of the week. But if Drury was dreary, Henderson was worse. Both teams were weary. The Panthers, who finished with a 33-2 season record, had to win five times in six days.
The Thursday quarterfinal matchup between Drury and Briar Cliff College of Sioux City, Iowa generated the most spectacular basketball of the entire tournament, with the Panthers taking their biggest step toward the championship by winning 89-84. Owing to its international recruiting tactics, Briar Cliffs 12-man roster is graced by three Iowans and seven Panamanians, including four members of the Panamanian national team. Charger Coach Ray Nacke's Panama Canal began about five years ago and has produced such blue-chippers as Rolando Frazier, a 6'5" sophomore who made the All-Tournament team, and Ernesto Malcomb, a 6'4" senior who might have if he had played better defense.
Frazier and Malcomb each scored 29 points against Drury, which countered with a 31-point performance from Jerry Alexander, who sports a Fu Manchu goatee and Mephisto-like sideburns. Washington also connected for 18 points, but it was the all-round competence of both teams that captivated the crowd; during one torrid stretch they scored on nine consecutive possessions.
"I think we played just good enough to win tonight," Carter said Saturday. "But after we beat Briar Cliff, I knew we were going all the way."
Earlier in the week Drury had knocked off Hanover, Ind. 69-60 and edged Kearney State, Neb. 72-69 in a game just as close as the final score. Closer for 34 minutes was the Panthers' semifinal struggle Friday night with perplexing Midwestern State of Wichita Falls, Texas. An unseeded team that had been beaten 15 times before it arrived in Kansas City, Midwestern belied its record by racking up three victories before losing to Drury 77-59. The game was close until the final six minutes, when Carter, Washington and Alexander ignited a 19-2 scoring blitz.
Meanwhile, Henderson State was moving toward the final with successive performances that seemed destined to leave Coach Bobby Reese with a case of cardiac arrest. The Reddies, as they are known—and loved—down in Arkadelphia, scored three of their victories by the total of three points and had to go into overtime to achieve another. Henderson nipped Point Park, Pa. 70-69, beat Wisconsin Eau Claire 84-78 in overtime, edged Quincy, Ill. 70-69 and got by Southwest Texas 58-57 to reach the Saturday night showdown.
Drury was a smooth team, short on mistakes and long on finesse, until the final, but Henderson was consistently error-prone from start to finish. In the title game, the Reddies were called five times for traveling violations, shot only 34.7% from the floor, matched Drury with 15 turnovers and had two players foul out.
Henderson's most dangerous weapon was 6'4" Forward Anthony Avery, a deadly shooter even though the index finger of his right (shooting) hand was cut off at the first knuckle in an industrial accident two years ago. The disability has had no apparent effect on Avery's touch or accuracy. He scored 97 points in the tournament, making more than half his field-goal attempts, and sank 15 of 19 free-throw tries.
In the final, however, Henderson's penchant for sloppy play and a 46-40 deficit in rebounds were too much to overcome, even though Drury was having an off night. In the first half, Henderson led for 10 minutes before buckets by Carter and Washington gave Drury a 34-30 lead at intermission that it never relinquished.
"I got a little bit nervous," Washington said, "but I remembered that we'd beaten them earlier this year in the Quincy Christmas tournament, so I just tried to keep the pressure on. We don't worry about the shots we miss. We just keep taking them."
Drury saved the NAIA seeding committee from total embarrassment. As usual, the seedings were as accurate as sheep-entrail readings. Cameron University of Lawton, Okla., which had a 36-3 record, maintained a tournament tradition by becoming the eighth straight No. 1 seed to fail to make the finals. Cameron was ousted by Southwest Texas 77-73, its only loss of the season to an NAIA opponent. The Aggies' other defeats had been to Jacksonville and New Mexico State, both NCAA qualifiers.
"It didn't hurt us to be top-seeded," said Cameron Coach Lonnie Nichols. "We just got beat by a better team." Indeed, more than half the seeded clubs had been knocked out of the tournament by the second round. Grand Canyon, Ariz., the NAIA defending champ and the No. 2 seed, was quickly sent home by Marymount, Kans. 79-74 in its opening contest.
Washington, Alexander and Avery joined Frazier on the All-Tournament team, along with James Patrick, who led Southwest Texas to a 101-88 rout of Midwestern in the consolation game. But in contrast to other years, when team performances were overshadowed by sensational individual play, parity was the watchword of the '79 tournament. This year's field was perhaps the most closely matched in NAIA history. It was a boon to the week's turnout of 65,681 fans and made for good show business.
The Panthers' Mike Carter won the Hustle Award, and not just for his enthusiastic assault on the nets.