They come from Boiling Springs, Nacogdoches, Frankfort and, of course, Eau Claire. They play in that interesting basketball get-together, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics tournament, which faces off 32 "small college" teams from other places like Princess Anne, Md., and Arkadelphia, Ark., and they come up with people like Travis Grant, on his way to the pros. Travis Grant, the alltime collegiate scoring leader, who banked his 4,000th career point in the semifinal against Stephen F. Austin. Travis Grant, who set a new NAIA tournament record of 60 points in one game against poor Minot State. Travis Grant, from Clayton, Ala., which is also the hometown of George Wallace. It was a big week for Clayton.
The 21 pro scouts, six general managers and seven coaches at the tournament slavered over Grant. "He is the best pure shooter I've ever seen," Len Snyder of the Buffalo Braves said. Bob Cousy was drooling. "Grant plays no defense," he said, "but he hardly needs to. Any NBA club with a big stud at center would find him extremely useful just as he is."
Grant actually had a cold stretch in the first half of his 60-point performance. He scored 43 for his Kentucky State Thorobreds in the second half. But then earlier this season he had put in 50 in one half against Eastern Michigan.
"I didn't feel I had an unusual game," Grant said modestly afterward. "It was my usual performance."
The tournament had some other usual performances, by Grant's teammate Sam Sibert, who matched his 6'7" frame against a 7'3" St. Thomas center and blocked 15 shots in one half, which must be the combined pro and college record. (One pro scout said he was ready to forget Grant and draft Sibert.) By George Adams, a 6'5" forward for Gardner-Webb of Boiling Springs, N.C., who averaged 33.8 points a game this year. And by Mike Ratliff, Eau Claire's 6'10" center. Only on a club as balanced as Eau Claire would Ratliff average a mere 22.4 points and 14.9 rebounds a game. Ratliff's figures would be bigger were it not for Guard Frank Schade, whose cuts and use of screens, not to mention his outside shooting, have to be seen.
All of which leaves Eau Claire's most remarkable asset yet unmentioned. Its maniacal student fans, between 4,000 and 5,000 strong (out of a student body of 8,251), staged a virtual occupation of Kansas City. Practically from dawn to dusk from Monday to Sunday, they swarmed over Civic Plaza in downtown KC and undoubtedly and unequivocally set a national small-college alltime record for partying and nonstop cheering. The local cops were so impressed with the gang's voluntary collection of huge heaps of beer cans that they were considering writing a letter of commendation to the college.
At night the Eau Claire students entered the auditorium in a body, and immediately an enormous baritone voice would crash out of the concrete of the upper stands. "We are the Blugolds, we are the Blugolds," over and over and over, hypnotically.
The Blugolds needed all the help they could get just to reach the semifinals. Tiny Belhaven College, enrollment 580, playing an all-white lineup recruited entirely from the not very basketball-berserk state of Mississippi, stretched Eau Claire most of the way as it shot an impossible 68.8% from the floor in the first half and finally lost 59-53. Charlie Tharp, a 6'11" giant from Indianola, outplayed the formidable Ratliff on both offense and defense, hitting 10 of 11 and 21 points in the first half alone. His feat, avidly viewed by the scouts, was all the more remarkable because he was often double-teamed, and Belhaven did not have a guard to feed him.
As if Tharp was not enough, the Blugolds had to run across Augustana's normally sober student population, which matched Eau Claire's fanaticism to a qualitative standoff. The Clansmen were so drunk on euphoria that the Eau Claire mob didn't quite know what to make of them, particularly when Eau Claire discovered it was looking up to a team. Jolly blond giant Bruce Hamming, 6'10", might have whipsawed Eau Claire had not the fierce Schade shot three brilliant baskets within 48 seconds and set up many more with the most spectacular guard play of the tourney.
Naturally, this made for a superb buildup to the finals. And who were in them? Eau Claire, of course, which had wasted Gardner-Webb 83-68, even though it never did shut off Adams, who finished with 30 points. And Kentucky State, which had destroyed Minot State 118-68 in Grant's 60-point game, trotted past West Georgia 112-83, laughed at St. Thomas so hard it possibly could have lost the game before winning 66-57 and beat Stephen F. Austin in a hard battle 87-82. The Austin Lumberjacks scrambled back in contention when Grant went out on fouls, a rare occurrence. Much of the credit for that belonged to a gallant freshman, Andria Brown of Chireno, Texas, who played astonishing defense, holding Grant to a mere 12 points in the first half.