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Perhaps destiny decreed that of the 32 teams assembled in Kansas City last week for the NAIA national championship, the two known as the Antelopes should meet in the finals. Certainly an antelope had a better chance of surviving the six-day single-elimination tournament than, say, a Hornet or a Pirate, or even a No. 1-ranked team. While the big guys were off doing their thing in the NCAA Regionals, the little guys were showing that on any given day—make that six days—most anybody can lose to anybody else.
When the 24th-ranked Kearney State ( Neb.) Antelopes ran over the top-ranked Winston-Salem ( N.C.) Rams 89-76 in the quarterfinals Thursday night, even Winston-Salem Coach C. E. (Big House) Gaines, the winningest active coach in the country, claimed he wasn't surprised. "Everybody knows anybody can win this thing," said Big House. "If a team gets hot, that's it. Explanations are not explainable."
In all, there were 11 upsets in the 32-game marathon, which provided enough action for even the most devoted basketball junkie. On Wednesday, for instance, the ball began bouncing in Kemper Arena at 9:30 a.m. and, because of the numerous close games and overtimes, didn't stop until 1:19 Thursday morning. That night, Grand Canyon College—the No. 2-ranked Antelopes who would eventually nip the No. 24-ranked Antelopes for the title—found itself tied with Central State ( Ohio) at the end of regulation time. Four overtimes later the teams were still tied. Finally, Grand Canyon won 88-82 in the fifth overtime, and the few remaining fanatics staggered home at 1:30 a.m.
The tournament had other things to offer. For those into collecting names of obscure colleges, there were such little-known, yet real, participants as Drury, Bethany Nazarene, Mercyhurst, Lemoyne-Owen and Ouachita Baptist. For those who enjoy the discovery of memorable names of athletes, the roster was even more fascinating. A first-rate all-name team could have been composed of Melvin Mabins, Belvin Ashby, Bud Sapp, Joe Foots and Kansas-Newman College's high-flying Leroy Leep. Honorable mention could have gone to Dennis Custard, Duane Bilbo, Royal Went-worth, Peter Muzzy and Jack Sportsman.
Things would have been even perkier had the NAIA regular-season scoring champ, Bob Kirkley of Eastern New Mexico, been present. It was Kirkley, NAIA fans remember, who offered the world a rare glimpse at the priorities of a heavy shooter. "The four best things in life," he told newsmen in the preseason, "are basketball, chicken, McDonalds and orange soda."
The tournament did have its share of quality ballplayers. Notable among them were 6'6" Power Forward Steve Bay-less of Central State, 6'5" Forward Tim Higgins of Kearney State and 6'5" Forward-Guard Carlos Terry of Winston-Salem, a superfluid, though sometimes lethargic, gunner. In warmups Terry sucked on a toothpick, while his teammates chewed bubble gum. In games, they blew large bubbles, even during shots. "We get a bag of about 240 pieces before games," explained Terry, whom Big House Gaines has compared to former Ram star Earl Monroe. "And we just chew. We usually get a bag of picks, too. I'd play with a pick if they'd let you. But they don't."
As teams dropped by the wayside, people began to follow Kearney's Antelopes, who were noteworthy because they shot so well and had no blacks on the squad. "There just aren't a whole lot of blacks in Nebraska." said Coach Jerry Hueser, who recruits mostly in small towns around Kearney. Led by Higgins and 5'9" Randy Cipriano, son of University of Nebraska Coach Joe Cipriano, KSC defeated the first-, fifth-, eighth- and ninth-rated teams en route to the finals.
Grand Canyon, on the other hand, always seemed to play just awful enough to give its opponents a chance. Assembled from such disparate spots as Detroit, Chicago, Dallas and Rochester, N.Y., the Phoenix team played at times as though half asleep. Or perhaps exhausted. Willie Polk, Grand Canyon's 6'5" guard who played all but a few seconds of the five-overtime game, admitted he was "kinda tired" after that one.
And when his team had rallied to down the stubborn country boys from Kearney State 79-75 in the final, Polk—who set a tournament record by sinking 23 of 24 free throws during the week—added that all the sweating left one feeling permanently dehydrated. "We just lived on fluids this whole week," he said, patting his shriveled stomach. He didn't say what kind of fluids, but if you believe Bob Kirkley it was orange soda, No. 4 on the list of fun things. And maybe—in answer to a disappointed Big House Gaines—that's how you get an explanation for what happens in this most unexplainable of tournaments.