All week long sentiment had been building up for a bright New Mexico team that had intrigued almost everyone with its clean, expert ball handling and superb defense in the National Invitation Tournament. Hardly anyone except, perhaps, 300 loyal and hopeful Peorians among the 15,137 in New York's Madison Square Garden last Saturday gave Bradley a chance in the finals. But the Braves thrashed New Mexico 86-54.
For Bradley it was a wonderful finish. Despite a 20-6 record, the Braves were third in the tough Missouri Valley Conference, and Coach Chuck Orsborn had welcomed the opportunity to show off his sky-high leapers and shooters in New York.
Bradley had almost no trouble at all with Army in the semifinals on Thursday. The young Cadets, with only Mike Silliman, a dandy 6-foot-6 forward, and a lot of hustle and muscle, had previously upset seeded Duquesne 67-65 in overtime. But the Braves simply overwhelmed Army. Joe Strawder, a gangling 6-foot-9 senior with a wispy goatee, came off the bench to score 19 points; Levern Tart, a slippery 6-foot-2 driver, got 20, and Bradley won 67-52. There was, however, some consolation for Coach Tates Locke and his Cadets. They later beat NYU 60-59 for third place when Silliman lofted in a 15-foot jump shot with eight seconds to go.
Meanwhile, New Mexico, with its disciplined, patient attack built around split-second screens and drives off a double post and a taut man-to-man defense that had been the very best in the country during the season, looked good enough to beat the field. The Lobos also had Ira Harge, a poker-faced 6-foot-8 center from Detroit who played the low post, hovering around the basket like a giant hound dog stalking a treed possum. He snapped up rebounds, blocked shots, screened for New Mexico's slick shooters and poured in points of his own.
First the Lobos put down Drake 65-60. Apparently undisturbed by the Bulldogs' late surge that cut their lead to 61-60 with 1:18 to go, they simply went into a deep stall and waited for Drake to foul. Boo Ellis calmly plunked in four free throws to clinch the game.
NYU, after a typically dismal first half, suddenly roused itself to give New Mexico a battle in the semifinals. Happy Hairston and Barry Kramer got the Violets ahead by four points but NYU went off on a spree of errors after being hit with the thing it dreaded most—a zone press. NYU folded like an old accordion and New Mexico won 72-65.
Back home in Albuquerque, the folks were ecstatic. "The best thing that's happened to New Mexico since statehood," announced one fan. Responding to a campaign by Station KDEF, fans chipped in more than $5,000 to send nine cheerleaders to New York for the final game, and the Independent Insurors Group of New Mexico installed 60 television sets in the 6,457-seat Johnson Gymnasium so that the students could watch their heroes perform. Governor Jack M. Campbell proclaimed Friday "Lobo Day" and then took a plane for New York with University President Tom L. Popejoy.
Bradley's Chuck Orsborn was worried. He knew that his Braves had to stop Harge to win and Strawder, who had injured his ankle in the Army game, was the only hope. But Orsborn was skeptical. "I haven't seen anyone who can handle Harge," he said frankly the day before the game. "You need to be a Bill Russell, and Strawder has been an in-and-outer all season."
Strawder was no Bill Russell in the championship game, but he was good enough. In the first eight minutes he put in a foul shot, a short outside jumper and a two-handed dunk. Harge, meanwhile, scored only a single field goal and also accumulated three personal fouls. Coach Bob King, nervously wringing the flaming red towel he uses as a pacifier, took Harge out of the game. Then Eddie Jackson, a smooth 6-foot-6 sophomore, and Bobby West, an artful little outside shooter, took over for Bradley. They led a three-minute 11-point burst, Bradley zoomed to a 33-22 halftime lead, and the ball game was really over.
Harge started the second half but Strawder wheeled away from him for four baskets and added a foul shot. All Harge got was a single bucket—on a goal-tending call against Strawder—and he fouled out after 6� minutes. Without Harge, New Mexico faded badly. The Braves treated the usually impeccable Lobo defense with disdain. Jackson fired over it from outside and the elusive Tart, later voted the most valuable player, drove in for easy baskets. When it was all over, Strawder had 21 points, Jackson 14, Tart 13 and Bradley an 86-54 victory.