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It was like a mob scene in an old Cecil B. DeMille spectacular. Hundreds of screaming fans poured out of the stands at New York's Madison Square Garden and raised the weary but unprotesting SOUTHERN ILLINOIS players to their shoulders for the standard winners' parade. Then came the inevitable chant, "We're No. 1, we're No. 1."
The Salukis had just beaten Marquette 71-56 before a sellout crowd of 18,499, almost as many people as in all of Carbon-dale, to win the National Invitation Tournament championship. It was easily the greatest athletic triumph ever for Southern Illinois—officially a "small college" but with major ambitions—which had passed up an almost certain college-division title for a chance to play with the big schools in the NIT. It was a calculated risk, and the Salukis had calculated well.
Before the NIT, Southern Illinois had a 20-2 record and victories over Texas Western and Louisville. The team featured a Little All-America, Walt Frazier, a broad-shouldered 6'3" guard with all the moves and shots of a pro. Ed Zastrow and Roger Bechtold, both excellent playmakers, alternated at the other guard. The forwards were Dick Garrett, a skinny, hot-shooting sophomore, and 6'4" Clarence Smith, a wriggly leaper. At center, 6'7" Ralph Johnson was unspectacular but had the knack of coming up with a basket or a rebound at precisely the right moment. Coach Jack Hartman, a tough, no-nonsense man, had taught them to play his disciplined offense and defense, and they did it extremely well.
Still, it looked as if Southern Illinois would never make it past Duke in the quarterfinals, especially when the teams were tied 37-37 at the half. But the Salukis continued to attack Duke's zone defenses diligently and actually outrebounded the bigger Blue Devils 47-41 to cut off their fast break. Bob Verga kept Duke in the game with 24 points, but Garrett scored 18, Frazier and Johnson 17 apiece and Southern won out 72-63.
Rutgers was next for Southern Illinois in the semifinals, and the Scarlet Knights, well-coached by Bill Foster, had been the biggest surprise of the tournament. They had upset New Mexico 65-60 with a superb game. Rutgers kept the ball away from 6'9" Mel Daniels with a 1-2-2 zone, and Bobby Lloyd's 23 points gave the Knights a 13-point lead with 2:39 to go. The desperate Lobos went to a press, but Rutgers managed to survive.
That put Rutgers in with Southern Illinois, and even Coach Foster was amazed. "I really don't know what we're doing here," he said, "but I'm grateful. Our kids have been just fantastic." They were even more fantastic, for a while, against the Salukis. Little Jimmy Valvano put in his first eight shots, missed one and then made his 10th, Lloyd scored 16 points, Bob Greacen grabbed off rebounds and the Knights led 44-36 at the half. But Southern soon put an end to Rutgers' hopes. The Salukis shut off Valvano and Lloyd with a slick 2-3 zone, got control of the boards and Frazier and Garrett began hitting. Rutgers' lead soon disappeared, but the Knights kept it close until the last two minutes. Southern Illinois finally won 79-70 as Frazier scored 26 points and Garrett 22. "We just stayed in closer touch with them in the second half," explained Hartman. There was some consolation for Rutgers, though. They later trounced Marshall 93-76 for third place as Lloyd had his best game of the year. He scored 44 points to set a new NIT record of 129 and boosted his career total to 2,045. Bobby also finished the season with 255 free throws in 277 attempts for a .921 percentage, the best in the nation.
Marquette, meanwhile, was pulling off a few surprises also, and it was beginning to look like old home week for Coach Al McGuire, a former New Yorker. The Warriors got caught up in a real wingding with Providence and won it 81-80 in overtime. The big problem for Marquette, of course, was Jimmy Walker, and McGuire alternated Jim Burke, Brad Luchini and Blanton Simmons on him. But Walker still scored 36 points,' and the teams were tied 74-74 at the end of regulation time. The strategy in overtime was fierce. McGuire and Providence's Joe Mullaney platooned substitutes on offense and defense, called for time-outs and raced up and down the sidelines shouting instructions to their players. At one point they met at midcourt. McGuire stuck out his hand, Mullaney shook it and then they went back to work. Marquette squeezed out the victory when Walker's last-second shot bounced off the rim.
Then came Marshall in the semifinals. The free-wheeling Thundering Herd had just bombed Nebraska 119-88 in a shooting match with George Stone, a 6'7" gunner, scoring 46 points. "They could blow us right out of the gym," worried McGuire. He put George Thompson, a 6'2" forward who jumps like a 7-footer, on Stone, and the pair had a merry old time muscling each other. Thompson came away with a mouse under his eye, but he outscored Stone 28 to 24, Bob Wolf had 21 points and Marquette won 83-78.