The NIT Story
From The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, December 1, 1970
Take the hope that was everywhere prevalent after the 18th basketball victory (over New Hampshire) that the UMass basketball team was tourney material, take five frustrating days waiting for the bid to come from the National Invitation Tournament, take the exciting six days that led up to the NIT game itself, take the remarkable contest between top-seeded Marquette and the Redmen, and add to these the following: 14 basketball players, one coach and 5,000 insane fans, and one has the ingredients that went into the making of THE NIT STORY.
The story can best be told here in day-to-day chronological order. Why not make the story a colorful saga? Well, there are over 5,000 colorful sagas that are tributaries to the overall story and one can get an earful of them most any day, just listening to those who were at Madison Square Garden on March 14. Here is the outline of events:
TUESDAY, MARCH 3: The NIT accepts 16 teams into its fold and, of this date, ten teams had been selected. They were Marquette, Louisiana State, St. John's, Georgia Tech, Army, Duquesne, Manhattan, Utah, Georgetown and Miami of Ohio.
Reliable sources indicated that, of the remaining six spots, four would be filled up by two teams each of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Missouri Valley Conference. At this time, word had it that three teams would be screened for the last two spots, UMass, Texas Tech and Creighton.
WEDNESDAY. MARCH 4: Texas Tech lost its tenth game the night before this day, which seemed to spruce up everyone's tourney outlook. Word had it, as it had a way of doing during these days, that the NIT selection committee would have a final meeting in two days, on Friday, in order to determine the last six squads that would round out the tourney field. Head UMass coach Jack Leaman said today, “We're going to have to sit by our telephones and wait for that bid.”
THURSDAY, MARCH 5: The night before this date, Creighton followed in the steps of Texas Tech and dropped its tenth tilt. Today the NIT picked two more teams, Louisville and Cincinnati, both units from the Missouri Valley Conference.
Tomorrow looked like the big day, with the numbers of positions to be filled now down to four. It still looked good that two teams would be drawn from the Atlantic Coast Conference, but with Texas Tech and Creighton riding ten losses, rumors had UMass and a quintet from the west coast as the likely recipients of the last two spots.
FRIDAY, MARCH 6: What a depressing day this turned out to be! Everyone was so sure that this was the sink-or-swim day for the Redmen and, when Friday evening arrived with no word from New York about the Redmen, gloom stepped in and all hope vanished.
Rumors, rumors, rumors. Unbased rumors disrupted a season that was not yet over. One thing had happened today, just one little thing; the NIT committee had met, had sent out a bid to only one school, Oklahoma, and had scheduled another meeting for Saturday. That was all! It was a day for misdirected expectation that resulted in unexpected frustration.
SATURDAY, MARCH 7: A new day! The selection committee met and chose two more teams. Its first pick was North Carolina of the Atlantic Coast Conference, its second choice was UMass. The NIT bid had sneaked in the old back door. Coach Leaman wasn't even in his office when it arrived. He also had gotten caught up in the Friday fantasy and had left his office in dismay to look at some high school players in New Jersey.
SUNDAY, MARCH 8: By this time the 16th tourney team had been chosen and it was the second ACC squad, Duke. Marquette was conceited as the top seed in this NIT field, as it was the number eighth ranked team in the land and had turned down a chance to go to the bigger N.C.A.A. tournament, hoping to rack up on New York City's prestigious NIT. Pairings were announced this fine day. UMass was matched up against Marquette for Saturday night, the second day of the first round.
MONDAY, MARCH 9: 1750 student tickets arrived from New York late today and went on sale at 6:30 p.m. UMass students were quick to get the word and crowded the Boyden ticket office, gobbling up 1700 of the ducats. More would come and more would be sold.
TUESDAY, MARCH 10: More tickets came today and they were sold.
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 11: Another ticket-buying day. The Redmen were holding spirited practices.
THURSDAY, MARCH 12: UMass held its last Cage-practice in preparation for the NIT today. Leaman had some words to offer to those who thought the Redmen didn't stand a chance against Marquette “If I thought we were going down there to get annihilated, I wouldn't have accepted the NIT bid.”
FRIDAY, MARCH 13: The Redmen departed from outside the Cage on this day, arrived in NYC and took in some of the Friday night games of the first round.
SATURDAY, MARCH 14: A final preparation, a warm-up drill to give the players a feel of Madison Square Garden, was completed in the morning, and the way was paved for Ray Ellerbrook, Julius Erving, Jack Gallagher, Dick Samuelson, John Betancourt, Ken Mathias, Dennis Chapman, Mike Pagliara, Bob Dempsey, Bill Greeley, Rick Vogeley, Bill Kesgen, Sam Provo and Chris Coffin, coach Jack Leaman and 5,000 kids from UMass to write the concluding chapter to THE NIT STORY.
The game was scheduled for 9 p.m. Close to two hours before gametime, the UMass players and coach arrived at the Garden then took seats along courtside to watch the first half of the tilt that would precede their own. Close to the full measure of 5,000 Redman fans were there and catching sight of their favorites in their maroon blazers, gave them a standing ovation, chanting “Let's go Redmen! ” A spine-tingling thing for one to observe or take part in.
As tap-off time neared, Marquette was first to take the floor giving the aggregate a gasping look at its spectacular pre-contest dunking drill. On another night the Warriors would have outshone the Redmen with this display but backed by all those crazy people in the stands, UMass took the floor and warmed up amidst the roar of the crowd. Marquette?
The player-introduction ceremony was indeed a ceremony for UMass as each one of the five starting Redmen received his plaudits in great measure. The game itself was super exciting. Erving played a solid board game, Ellerbrook came back after having a couple of shots soundly blocked to hit some key Redman hoops, and the two sophomore guards, Betancourt and Pagliara, took turns covering Marquette's All-American Dean Meminger. He had to earn each of his 11 points.
The affair was tied at halftime, 27-27. It remained that tight until the final half of the final minute when the Warriors were out of the woods, 62-55. Over the last 60 seconds of action, the 5,000 on hand let the world know how they felt, repeatedly asserting, “We'll be back!”