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Utah The First Cinderella
ALEXANDER WOLFF
March 22, 2010
Led by Arnie Ferrin Jr. and Wat Misaka, the 1943--44 Utes peaked at just the right time and became the unlikeliest of champions
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March 22, 2010

Utah The First Cinderella

Led by Arnie Ferrin Jr. and Wat Misaka, the 1943--44 Utes peaked at just the right time and became the unlikeliest of champions

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In the regional final the next day Utah faced more formidable Iowa State. The Utes trailed 28--26 midway through the second half as Misaka played through foul trouble with two whistles, he says today, constituting the only time he ever felt discrimination on the court. Utah nonetheless pulled away for a 40--31 victory. The first team ever to play in the NCAAs and the NIT in the same season—a group ushered into the draw "through an undertaker's parlor," as Joe Cummiskey of the New York daily PM put it—then boarded the train back East for the NCAA final.

Awaiting the Utes was a Frankenstein monster of a team, pieces of several collegiate squads stitched together into a terrifying whole. The Navy had converted the Dartmouth campus into a training base, making it home to such basketball stars as Cornell's Bob Gale, Fordham's Walter Mercer and NYU's Harry Leggat, as well as future NBA guard Dick McGuire, who after playing in 16 games as a St. John's freshman received his orders from the Navy and immediately suited up for the Indians. Dartmouth's only loss all season had come to the country's best military team, before McGuire arrived in Hanover. In addition Dartmouth supplied a star of its own, big man Aud Brindley, whose 13 field goals had helped defeat Ohio State in the East Regional final.

The bookies installed Dartmouth as seven-point favorites, and the Indians players boasted that they ought to stage an intrasquad scrimmage to give fans their money's worth, according to Couch, who overheard them in a Manhattan coffee shop. A Dartmouth victory appeared so certain that a funk settled over the organizers of the Red Cross benefit game between the winners of the NCAAs and the NIT, which would be held at the Garden two days after the NCAA final. Word came down that the Navy had ordered Dartmouth's trainees to return to campus as soon as possible, ensuring that Utah, win or lose, would play St. John's, the NIT winner, in the Red Cross game. If the Indians beat the Utes, the benefit would be a meaningless anticlimax.

In the NCAA final, Utah threw double teams at Brindley and Gale, and neither team could build a lead of more than four points. With less than a minute left Utah held the ball and a 36--34 edge, needing only to play keepaway to secure the title. But in the final 10 seconds the Indians knocked the ball loose and found McGuire up the floor. Misaka remembers the shot, which forced the first overtime in an NCAA title game, as "a running lefthanded thing from quite a ways out."

McGuire's conjuring might have broken Utah's spirit. Dartmouth was the more mature and rugged team. But all those practices in the thin Wasatch Range air had given Peterson's regulars stamina to draw on. With the game tied at 40 and less than a minute left in overtime, the Utes found themselves with one last possession.

They worked the ball around the forecourt, from timeline to baseline and back again. "We spaced the floor well," remembers Bob Lewis, who from the right corner found Wilkinson open beyond the top of the key in the final 10 seconds. Wilkinson's set shot traced a high arc, true but short, and struck the front of the rim, bouncing off the backboard and seeming poised to fall away. But on the old newsreel footage it looks as if the front lip of the rim rises up ever so slightly to coax the ball into the basket. "I had a hard time seeing through the smoke," recalls Fred Lewis, who for a moment thought, What the heck happened?

What happened, Misaka says, sent him "about 10 feet in the air," which would be nearly twice his height. The final score was 42--40, Utah, and "the foundlings of postseason play," in the words of Irving Marsh of the New York Herald Tribune, were NCAA champions.

Two nights later the Utes returned to the Garden with a chance to prove themselves college basketball's undisputed best. A year earlier, after winning the NCAA crown, Wyoming had raised the profile of that younger event by winning the first Red Cross game. Now, before a crowd that would donate more than $41,000, the Utes tried to match the Cowboys' feat.

The New York fans might have been expected to favor the local team, St. John's, but the Garden then served as the home floor of several other colleges too, and followers of those teams didn't care to see the Redmen win. More than that, the Utes had won over New Yorkers during the previous two weeks with their fluid, hustling play. Misaka, in particular, "was so well received in New York," Ferrin recalls. "The port was closed, and there were troop ships there, but people responded to how hard he played."

Ferrin, the most valuable player of the NCAA tournament, dropped in several one-handers down the stretch to secure a 43--36 victory. As Peterson took the trophy around the locker room, rubbing it sacramentally on the heads of his players, he yelled at each in turn, "This is it, kid. It's yours—you won it!"

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