Even as Announcer John Condon was imploring the crowd of 19,008 in New York's Madison Square Garden, "Don't go out on the floor after the game, please stay off the court," hundreds of happy Dayton fans were edging out of their courtside seats, preparing to swarm over and around their heroes. Minutes later, while the Garden special policemen made halfhearted motions to stop them, they engulfed the Dayton players.
The Flyers, a one-point underdog, had just beaten a big Kansas team 61-48 with a magnificent effort to win the National Invitation Tournament. (The tournament had set an attendance record with 138,250 for eight doubleheaders.) It was Dayton's 14th straight victory and stirred memories of a recent, less fortunate excursion into postseason competition. Just a year ago the Flyers had surprised almost everyone by slipping through the NCAA Mideast Regional, beating North Carolina in Louisville and going on to play UCLA for the national championship. They lost that one to the Bruins 79-64. So, last Saturday's victory was especially rewarding. "We've been the runner-up kings of the world," said Coach Don Donoher. "We were just tired of being second."
Actually, the season had started badly for Dayton. The Flyers lost nine of their first 16 games, including four by a single point and two by three points, and seemed to be going nowhere. Glinder Torain, a 6' 6" center, and Rudy Waterman, a shifty little guard, who were part-time starters the year before, had been benched because of problems which later were revealed when Waterman accused Donoher of discrimination. (Donoher chose to ignore the charge, and both players came to New York with the squad.) Don May, the smooth, strong 6' 4" All-America forward, was not yet in shape after recovering from knee injuries suffered during the summer, and Dan Sadlier, a 6' 6" corner man and defensive specialist, was in a slump. The center position was a problem, too.
Then, in the ninth loss, to Louisville, things took a turn for the better. Behind 16 points at half time, Donoher replaced husky 6' 9" sophomore George Janky at center with Dan Obrovac, a skinny 6' 10" junior who had never distinguished himself, and both Obrovac and the team suddenly came alive. Obrovac outplayed Westley Unseld, and Louisville barely won 73-72. "After that," recalls Donoher, "it seemed we couldn't lose." Obrovac became a starter, May regained his form, Dayton won its next 10 games for a 17-9 record and earned an invitation to the NIT.
Still, it looked as if Dayton would not get past Fordham in the quarter-finals. The Rams, playing a good man-to-man defense, held May to only three field goals—though he made 10 of 13 fouls—in the first half, and Fordham led 33-28. May, who finished with 28 points, and Obrovac got the Flyers back in the game in the second half, but the Rams were ahead 56-55 with 2:48 to go. Then Obrovac dropped in six straight free throws and Dayton won 61-60.
Notre Dame was even tougher for Dayton in the semifinals. The Irish, who were not expected to get past the first round, had survived a last-ditch rally by LIU to knock the nation's No.1 small college team out of the tournament 62-60. It had appeared to be all over for LIU when Bob Whitmore and Bob Arnzen shot Notre Dame into a 41-28 lead early in the second half. But Coach Roy Rubin made some adjustments. He brought in sophomore William Reeves to play Arnzen, moved Larry Newbold, his fine little backcourt man, inside and the Blackbirds began to fly. Arnzen did not score another field goal, while Newbold, jump shooting and driving from the side, scored 23 points in the second half—he had 35 in the game—and LIU just fell short of victory.
That put Notre Dame in with Dayton. By this time the Flyers, who had played their first two games with a sparse rooting section, had some support from back home—a red-vested band, eight cheerleaders and their precision-dancing Flyerettes.
Notre Dame's game was not complicated. In fact, Publicist Roger Valdiserri, asked to describe his team's attack, had said, "We have a Stanley and Livingstone offense. We send two guards and a forward out on a search party for Whitmore and Arnzen." The searchers did a fine job of finding their men. Whitmore and Arnzen each scored 13 points in the first half and, despite 22 by May, Dayton was behind 43-39. But Bob Hooper, a little hustler who played with the fingers of his left hand splinted and taped, saved the Flyers. He got them into a tie at 68 points at the end of the game, and his three foul shots in overtime won for Dayton 76-74. May had 32 points and Hooper 18. "Hooper looks like he's really fast, but he's not," explained Donoher. "He's deceptively slow." Notre Dame's Johnny Dee insisted, "That Hooper, he killed us. It's a tough way to go." There was some consolation for the Irish, though. They later beat St. Peter's 81-78 for third place.
Kansas, meanwhile, was working its way into the finals against Eastern teams. The Jayhawks had the size—6' 10" Dave Nash, flanked by 6' 8" Greg Douglas and 6' 6" Rodger Bohnenstiehl in the front court—to intimidate most teams. They were also well-schooled in defense and played a deliberate offense that eventually exasperated their opponents. The man who ran it was Jo Jo White, an impassive 6' 3" All-America guard with the quick hands of a boxer. White was the pressure man on defense, and he controlled the ball beautifully, dribbling it with a bewildering change of pace and snapping off sharp passes to teammates.