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A clue to what would happen in the finals came in the second game Friday night when Utah, the western champion, was harassed to distraction by Cincinnati's defense. This Cincinnati defense was the most intriguing and unexpected basketball development of the year. For the past two years the University of Cincinnati had expected to win a national championship with its one-man team, Oscar Robertson, only to fail in the semifinals each time. This season Ed Jucker, in his first year as head coach after seven years as an assistant, decided on a major change.
He junked the traditional run-and-shoot style of Cincinnati ball, replacing it with a controlled offense and a defense that would do credit to the Baltimore Colts. Instead of using one man he used five. The change took time. Cincinnati lost three of its first eight, one by 17 points to St. Louis. After that fiasco, alarmed Coach Jucker held a team meeting, said a prayer and told his players they could still win the Missouri Valley Conference if they got tough. Not even he thought about the NCAA championship. But after a loss to Bradley, Cincinnati got tough indeed, and won 20 straight.
The toughest Bearcat was Bob Wiesenhahn, 220 pounds of burly bruiser who averaged 10 rebounds a game. He got help from the even more noticeable Paul Hogue, a 6-foot-9 bespectacled tree trunk. The tailor who cut the gray flannel blazers that Cincinnati wears when traveling added a fourth button to Hogue's coat. Three didn't look right. Thanks to this pair, Cincinnati had only been outrebounded once this year. In addition, the team had Carl Bouldin and Tony Yates, whom one West Coast coach calls the finest pair of guards he has ever seen on the same team. Jucker was understandably delighted when his defense ruined Utah's famed fast break and produced an easy 82-67 win. After the game, the Cincinnati band, coeds and all, oompahed its way into the dressing room to highlight an enthusiastic celebration, complete with hugs, kisses, cheers and singing of the alma mater. "Just one more," roared the team.
By contrast, Ohio State's dressing room after the St. Joseph's game was as staid as a bankers' meeting. There was a quiet discussion of plays and strategy before the team walked back through the streets to the hotel. If these were head hunters, they were grinding their axes silently.
Saturday afternoon Fred Taylor gave Ohio State its scouting report on Cincinnati. "Much of their success is credited to their rebounding," he wrote in the report. " Hogue and Wiesenhahn particularly will bomb the offensive boards and will push and shove to get up over you. Hogue is a bit gay with his ability as a duke man [he got in two scuffles in the Utah game]. Make him foul." By game time, State, with no mean defense of its own, was a solid favorite.
Kansas City, which had scheduled Van Cliburn ("6 feet 4 and what a pair of hands," observed one coach) in an adjoining auditorium Friday night, came back with Rise Stevens on Saturday night, but the best show still was on the basketball court.
It took two and a half hours to play the quadruple overtime consolation game between St. Joseph's and Utah, with St. Joseph's winning, 127-120. The fans had barely settled down from that remarkable contest when the championship game began. In a very few minutes Cincinnati let everybody know that this game, too, would be a contest.
Lucas, at his impassive and exquisite best, was forced to play 15 feet from the basket to be effective. He kept the game close by hitting one-handers from there, but the rest of the Ohio State offense looked strained and slow. Plays failed as Cincinnati made use of a special strategy of switching defensive assignments before Ohio State could test a foe's weaknesses and traits. The Bearcats maintained reasonable control of the backboards, took only the exceedingly good shots and forced the game into a pattern they liked, that of a grudging defensive battle. At the half the score was 39-38, Ohio State.
Each team showed its nerve under pressure in the second half. With 11 minutes left to play, thanks to five baskets on jump shots by Bouldin ("best outside shooter," Taylor's scouting report had said), Cincinnati was ahead by six points. Ohio State stormed back to go ahead by five, only to lose the lead again before the regulation game ended 61-61. Cincinnati got quickly ahead in the overtime and didn't give Ohio an opportunity to get even. The final score was 70-65, and Cincinnati was the new national champion in a truly stunning upset.
It was a beautiful basketball game, played by both teams with the pure poise and aggressiveness that the sport demands at its finest. A champion had been beaten, but by no fluke. There would be no second-guessing or sour grapes because there was simply nothing to second-guess. Cincinnati had played its new style of basketball to perfection. It had run its offense with extreme care, making adjustments quickly in the face of changing Ohio State defenses. For example, when Bouldin made his five straight shots from outside, Siegfried was forced to stop helping guard Hogue and to concentrate on his own man, Bouldin. Bouldin didn't waste a shot finding out Siegfried was playing him closer. He began at once to pass the ball to the now more-open Hogue.