The First NCAA Tournament Champions

Excerpted with permission from March 1939: Before the Madness: The Story of the First NCAA Basketball Tournament Champions by Terry Frei, published by Lyons Press, © Terry Frei 2016.

Regardless of when the coaches or fans arrived to Patten Gymnasium, they found that plenty of good seats still were available. Official attendance was 5,000 in the 9,000-seat arena on the Northwestern campus, and many thought that was being charitable. Charles Buxton of the Oregonian guessed 4,400—including the 400 coaches.

Part of the subsequent myth would be that the tournament was little noticed in the nation’s newspapers and other press outlets. That’s partially true. Leading up to the championship game, most papers ran only three- or four-paragraph wire stories about the Western and Eastern championships and didn’t give them splashy play. But it was relative: outside of New York, the national invitation tournament got similar—or worse—play. On the national front, boxing, horse racing, and baseball spring training were the big stories, and local papers supplemented that with tales of the area sports teams. The NCAA tournament, while not given mega-coverage, wasn’t ignored, and the stories about the championship game got more space. That said, though, there was no denying the fact that at least at the box office, the NCAA tournament hadn’t caught on. So as the first NCAA championship game began, the atmosphere was a mixed bag, with the nation’s coaches in the stands; with a stand-in band playing “Mighty Oregon” whenever it had the chance; with a radio broadcast; yet with many empty seats. Most important, the Buckeyes and Webfoots stepped onto the mid-court circle for the opening jump ball knowing they were playing for the national championship . . . and the right to be the first national champions. The championship and runner-up trophies were sitting at courtside, balanced on the scorer’s table. The Buckeye’s own coach was the head of the NCAA tournament committee and one of those most responsible for the founding of the event in the first place. If he didn’t communicate that he believed this was the time for true competitors to step up, he wasn’t a good coach. And he was a good coach.

For his part, Howard Hobson later reconstructed his pre-game discussion with Bobby Anet. The coach was worried that the train rides had left his boys tired.

“Bob,” Hobson said, “run ‘em to death if you can. Make them call the first time out. Make the say uncle first. Whatever you do, don’t call time until you’re all in.”

Said Anet: “Okay, coach.”

Thirty seconds into the game, Anet ended up with the ball after the carom of a Webfoots miss and tossed it into the hoop to open the scoring. On the next possession, he was fouled and made a free throw, putting the Webfoots up 3-0. John Dick added a free throw, and Wally Johansen’s bucket made it 6-0.

The Webfoots were on their way.

Jimmy Hull finally got the Buckeyes on the scoreboard with a free throw three and a half minutes into the game.

The Buckeyes seemed befuddled about how to attack the scrambling Ducks defense, couldn’t get the ball inside, and settled for long—and bad—shots. And the coaches in the stands who hadn’t seen the Webfoots before realized what they had heard was true, that they were both extraordinarily big along the front line but also a mobile and speedy outfit, with the big men able to keep up with Anet and Johansen, the guards from Astoria. That was what made this team both so good and so different.

Although the Buckeyes were playing in a Big Ten building, they ultimately appeared to be out of their league.

At the half, balanced Oregon was up 21-16. Johansen led the way with six points and Anet, Gale, and Dick all had five. Slim Wintermute had yet to score, but was intimidating defensively and effective on the boards.

Coach Hobson later said that as the teams headed to the dressing rooms at halftime, he overheard Hull telling teammates: “We’ll run them into the ground in the second half.”

Johansen remarked to his coach, “I wish they’d run a little but so we could work up a sweat. They play like they’re pooped.”

The Buckeyes indeed tried to pick up the pace and come from behind, and for a minute or two, it worked. Hull scored twice after the break to cut the lead to 21-20. Then Wintermute hit two baskets (for his only four points of the game), and Dick and Anet also scored in the run that put the Webfoots back up 29-20, still with over 17 minutes to play. Again, the Webfoots’ defensive strategy fooled their opponents, as they went from a zone to man-to-man, but Ohio State didn’t recognize it as such in time. From then on, the Webfoots never were in trouble.

At one point, Anet charged after a lose ball and fell over the press row while attempting to save the ball from going out of bounds. The little guard knocked over the championship trophy. “He clipped off the figure of the basketball player that was on the top of the trophy,” Dick said. “He ended up in the seats with the reporters.”

Later, his daughter, Peggy, asked him about the trophy.

“He said, ‘Well, I was just going for the ball and it was on the table there and I knocked it over,’” she says. “I know he would have gone for the ball under any circumstances.”

When Anet came out of the game late, he got a standing ovation. Hobson later said his major regret was that he got only two reserves—Matt Pavalunas and Ford Mullen—in the game and thus didn’t get all 11 boys memorialized in the box score of the first championship game. They were far enough ahead that he could have pulled it off.

Final score: Oregon 46, Ohio State 33.

Oregon never called a timeout.

Ohio State called five.

After the game, Hobson asked Anet why he hadn’t at least called one with the Webfoots holding a big lead in the second half. “You told me not to call one until we were tired,” Anet told his coach. “Hell, we’re not tired.”

Dick, who led the Webfoots with 13 points, never pretended that the game was well played. “Both teams shot poorly,” he said. “I blamed our poor shooting on the lack of practice. We hadn’t had a real practice since the day before the first Cal game, twelve days earlier. I felt their poor shooting stemmed from the inability to penetrate our team defense. In spite of our poor marksmanship, with our strong defense and control of the boards, we slowly built our lead. Our big size advantage was a major factor in our success, as was the speed and quickness of our guards, which they couldn’t match.”

The unofficial tally was that the Webfoots made 17 of their 63 shots from the floor, the Buckeyes 14 of 83. Anet and Gale both finished with ten points for the Webfoots, and Johansen added nine.

The Buckeyes in later years would assert their hearts weren’t in the game, and Hull said his ankle still was troubling him. “My leg just felt terrible,” he said. “I had more pain in it than you can imagine, and more tape on it than stores have on their shelves. And my accuracy just wasn’t there.” Still, he led the Buckeyes with 12 points. And they were blown out by a team that hadn’t been home in ten days, had spent much of that time on trains, and came to generally scoff at the Buckeyes’ alleged indifference about the game as excuse-making, even if the Buckeyes came to believe it all themselves.

Anet, wearing his warm-up jacket with the duck on the shoulder, accepted the broken championship trophy in two pieces. Hull, next to him, held the runner-up trophy. Nobody rushed the court, not even the Oregon alumni in attendance. The celebration was more about handshakes and pats on the back than exultation. The Webfoots were thrilled and gratified, the they didn’t realize what this would mean.

They were the first champions.

 

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