On March 20, 1944 the red-and-white uniformed University of Utah basketball players walked slowly off the court in Madison Square Garden. They had just lost to Kentucky 46-38 in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament.
"No curfew tonight," Coach Vadal Peterson told his team in the dressing room. "The season's over. You might as well go out and see New York while you have the chance. We're going home tomorrow. But you've got nothing to be ashamed of. You played well."
The Redskins were tied with Kentucky at the half and didn't start to fade until midway through the final period. Sophomore Herb Wilkinson scored 15 points and 18-year-old Arnie Ferrin, an All-America forward, added 13. Utah had its chances (the team sank only one field goal less than Kentucky) but missed 10 of 14 foul shots.
"That's what killed us," Coach Peterson said to the newspapermen a few minutes later. "The kids were a little tight playing here for the first time; a little gawky-eyed at all the people. They're a young bunch. They only average 18. They're all freshmen except Wilkinson." Peterson shook his head. "I wish we could play here again. I think we'd do a lot better."
A moment later Ned Irish, the acting president of Madison Square Garden, beckoned to Peterson. "You might be back sooner than you think," Irish said. "The NCAA wants you to replace Arkansas in the Western Regionals. They're going to call you in an hour or so at the hotel. If you want some free advice, take the bid. You can win both games out there and you'll be back here next week for the NCAA final."
As Peterson walked the few blocks to the Paramount Hotel, where the team was staying, he thought of what Irish had told him in the dressing room. His team originally had been invited to the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament. With an 18-3 record (losing only to two service teams and an industrial team), Utah was recognized as the best college squad in the Rocky Mountain area. "But the NCAA wouldn't guarantee us our expenses," Peterson said recently, "and they wouldn't give us a cut of the gate receipts. So we decided to come to the NIT." While Utah was en route to New York, however, Arkansas withdrew from the NCAA tournament because two of its players had been injured in an auto accident.
Soon after Peterson arrived in his hotel room the phone rang. Harold Olsen, chairman of the NCAA basketball tournament committee, confirmed what Irish had told the Utah coach. Peterson demanded that the NCAA guarantee Utah expenses and a percentage of the receipts this time. After a number of long-distance calls the NCAA finally agreed to Peterson's terms. "By then it was 3 o'clock in the morning," says Peterson, "and we had to go out and rustle up the kids. Some were in their rooms but some were still out on the town."
A student manager alerted the incoming players as they strolled into the hotel lobby. The players who were already in bed were awakened with the news that the team was going to Kansas City a few hours later on an 8 a.m. train. "That was during the war," Peterson says, "and passenger trains would get sidetracked every so often to let troop trains through. It took us nearly three days to get to New York from Salt Lake City. Going to Kansas City, it took us from Tuesday morning to Thursday." The next night Utah played Missouri in the NCAA opening round and won 45-35. In the Western Regional final on Saturday, Utah defeated Iowa State 40-31 and immediately got back into their Pullman berths for the trip back to New York and the NCAA championship final against Dartmouth the following Tuesday.
Dartmouth, captained by All-America Center Aud Brindley, was an eight-point favorite, largely because of two late-season reinforcements through the Navy V-12 program: Dick McGuire, voted the most valuable player in the New York City area as a St. John's University freshman, and 6-foot-6 Bob Gale of Cornell. In addition, Utah's high-scorer during the regular season, Center Fred Sheffield, was bothered by a sprained ankle suffered in the Kentucky game. Sheffield, at 6 feet 1, was the NCAA high-jump champion and Utah's best rebounder.
Utah, nevertheless, was leading Dartmouth by two points until McGuire threw in a set shot to tie the score at 36-36 and send the game into a five-minute overtime. The score was tied again at 40-40 in the last few seconds of the overtime when Utah called time out. "Wait for one shot," Peterson told his players. "Try to set up Wilkinson. Take your time." Utah put the ball in play, and the skinny, dark-haired Wilkinson scored the winning basket on a one-hander from beyond the foul circle.