It was very nearly the most unseemly thing to happen in the South since Scarlett O'Hara dug into the ravaged earth and ate a raw radish. Auburn and Mississippi State, two of Dixie's finest basketball teams, were fully prepared to meet in the finals of the Sugar Bowl Tournament last week and give the impressive Southeastern Conference an interesting glimpse of the future. It would have been fun. Auburn has the fast shuffle, and Mississippi State has some jokers. Everybody knows that adds up to a good hand unless you have a cold deck, and that's what the University of Houston slipped into the game in New Orleans.
When it was all over, Auburn had staggered through with the most important tournament trophy Coach Joel Eaves has ever won, and was still undefeated (8-0). But hardly anyone concerned had any fingernails left, least of all Auburn rooters. Houston jolted the tournament on opening night by upsetting Mississippi State in overtime 79-76. And then the Texas team carried Auburn down to the last prayerful gasp in another overtime game before losing 71-69. With that, both teams assumed their rightful characters of the season: Houston loses the tight ones (four defeats now by a total of seven points), and Auburn, with its smooth shuffle offense, wins all kinds.
While winning the first game in New Orleans, against Xavier of Ohio, the Tigers were listless. Eaves's small team was trying to hold something back for that final against Houston. It is well it did.
Coach Guy Lewis' intruders from Texas, who are about as Texan as the Egyptian army, with 12 of the 16 players and both managers coming from out of state, outshot and outrebounded Auburn. It was only through surer ball handling, passing, and defense that Eaves's shufflers got Houston to fritter away a seven-point half-time advantage.
Oddly enough, Auburn's hero, and the player who upheld the honor of the South, was a sparkling Midwesterner, Larry Cart. A fast, bowlegged head-faker, Cart gives away his Indiana basketball training with such slick tactics as passing behind his back and shooting jump shots from the hip. He has become the quarterback of the team without really learning the shuffle. At times this makes the scholarly, white-haired Eaves sit with his face propped sadly on his hands. The success of the shuffle depends to a large degree on knowing it by rote because it is a revolving, overloading attack which demands that each player do precisely one of five things (from any one of five positions) on every pass (SI, Dec. 11,1961). Cart, a transfer from last season's No. 1-rated Harris Young (Ga.) Junior College, often gets lost in the shuffle. But when he pumps in 24 points, as he did against Houston, Eaves forgives him.
Eaves gambled by using Cart, who is 5 feet 11, and his short backcourt aces in the Houston game. Thus he had what amounted to three guards most of the way, a strategy that sometimes looked like a ghastly joke as the tall Cougars controlled the rebounds.
Houston has one of the quickest centers in the country in 6-foot-7 Lyle Harger, a 26-year-old Army veteran from Lubbock, Texas. A year ago Harger was good enough to outplay Cincinnati's Paul Hogue in two personal duels, and this season he is even better. Moreover, most of last year's supporting cast, which had a good 21-6 season, is keeping him company. Layton Johns, Auburn's fine center, whose own shooting contributed in no small way to the Tigers' win, was enraptured by Harger's ability. "Once." said Johns after the final game, "I jumped as high as I could to block one of his shots, and I was still looking at his belt buckle. He's the quickest big man I have ever seen, and the best. Cotton Nash [of Kentucky] can't carry his shoes."
Eaves's plan was to keep Harger from getting the ball. He therefore sent his three guards into the front line, led by Cart, and the combination of their better outside shooting and constant harassment of Harger was the ultimate difference in the Sugar Bowl. For example, when Houston moved into a 2-1-2 zone, Cart hit with nine jump shots. And when the Cougars went man for man, Cart fed his teammates with a variety of trick passes, two of them behind his back, amid the usual ahs that accompany such sorcery.
Even so, Harger, who has heavy, black eyebrows, a dark complexion, a tattoo from his service days and the well-modulated voice of a radio-speech major, was nearly too much. He scored 24 points, hitting eight of 11 shots from the floor and going 8 for 8 at the free-throw line. With seven seconds to play in the regulation period, he stuffed in a layup with indisputable firmness, sending the game into overtime. But in those additional excruciating moments Auburn's swarming defense kept Harger from getting the ball more than twice, and that meant the game.
Colorful Babe McCarthy's Mississippi State team, the defending champions and favorites, had not been so lucky with the big Texan. They first tried to harass Harger the afternoon before the opening game with a joke. McCarthy's team is big on jokes. Mississippi State is where they put dead skunks under Adolph Rupp's chair and hang funeral wreaths on the backboard when a specially hated foe like Kentucky comes to town. In New Orleans the Maroons bought a $23 second-hand tape recorder, and Leland Mitchell, the team's thick-legged, aggressive high scorer, was elected to become the fictitious "Dave Kinnard of WSIX" and interview some people on the phone.