‘We’re No. 1’: WVU got there once
SHEPHERDSTOWN — Only once in its basketball history has WVU been ranked No. 1 when the regular season ended.
It was 61 seasons ago when Stansbury Hall was regularly jammed with 6,800 fans, Jerry West was a sophomore, the Mountaineers lost only to Duke in Durham and gold-tinged wins over Kentucky and North Carolina gave impetus to the team bobbing to the surface of the two rating services.
Coming into the 1957-1958 season, West Virginia was ranked eighth, with defending NCAA champion North Carolina atop both the Associated Press and the Coach’s Poll.
In its early-season games the first week in December, the Mountaineers slammed Southern Conference foes Virginia Military Institute (109-50) and Furman (105-67) in Stansbury Hall on campus.
The team’s starters were sophomore West, junior Bob Smith and seniors Don Vincent, Joedy Gardner and 6-foot-10 Lloyd Sharrar.
Willie Akers, Bob Clousson, Ronnie Retton and Bucky Bolyard were the four others most-trusted by coach Fred Schaus.
By Dec. 20 of 1957, West Virginia had routed Penn State and William & Mary and crept past Washington & Lee (74-69) and Richmond (76-74 in overtime), riding into Lexington, Kentucky with a 6-0 record. The victory over William & Mary was accomplished in Logan, and the scrape-by win over Washington & Lee was played in Fayetteville.
In Lexington was the UKIT or Kentucky Invitational, a prized four-team tournament hosted near Christmas by Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky Wildcats.
The Mountaineers were paired with highly-ranked Kentucky in the opening round.
In a fast-paced and very entertaining game, West Virginia topped the home-standing Wildcats, 77-70, to join defending national champion North Carolina in the finals.
North Carolina had edged Wilt Chamberlain and the Kansas Jayhawks in triple overtime for the 1957 national championship. The Tar Heels had completed an unbeaten season and came into 1957-1958 as the top-ranked team in the land.
When West Virginia staggered the Tar Heels, 75-64, they were elevated to No. 1 in both polls.
After beating Canisius, Washington & Lee and George Washington in Morgantown and achieving road wins over Villanova, Pitt and Furman, the overall record had become 14-0.
On Jan. 27, 1958, West Virginia traveled to Durham and faced Duke in its Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke ended the 14-game winning streak and temporarily chased the Mountaineers from the top perch in the polls, beating them 72-68 in a frenetic contest.
Moved to No. 3 in the rankings, the Mountaineers drilled visiting Florida State, 103-51, when the Seminoles made 17-of-81 shots while failing to negotiate their way through the full-court zone press they evaporated before.
A special win came at Madison Square Garden in New York against St. John’s, 87-78.
Through the next few weeks came Southern Conference wins over Richmond, William & Mary, and George Washington as well as non-conference successes against Penn State, Detroit and Pitt.
The final regular season game in drafty and poorly-lit Uline Arena in the railroad yards of Washington, D.C., was a pulsating, 113-107 double-overtime win over George Washington.
When the regular season closed and WVU was 23-1, it had resurfaced as the No. 1 team in both polls.
Remaining, was the Southern Conference tournament at the Richmond Arena.
West Virginia trampled Davidson (a team it had not played during the year), 91-61, to reach the semifinals, where it met host Richmond.
That game was always reasonably close, and Schaus couldn’t do any wholesale substituting until near the end. He had removed several starters, but Don Vincent was still on the floor. In an instant, Vincent incurred a broken leg and would be lost for any more possible games as the Mountaineers won, 81-70.
In the championship game the next night, WVU stopped William & Mary, 74-58, for the third win of the campaign over the Indians.
Beating William & Mary meant a 12th straight win, the Southern Conference championship and a bid to the NCAA tournament. The shiny record had grown to 26-1.
The NCAA sent the Mountaineers to Madison Square Garden in New York to play local favorite Manhattan.
Willie Akers had taken Vincent’s place in the starting lineup.
Vincent’s 12.8 points a game were missing against the Jaspers. West had a team-leading 17.8 points a game and Smith (12.4), Gardner (12.0) and Sharrar (11.8) all finished in double figures. Akers in his reserve role had averaged 6 points and 5 rebounds a game.
Using its patented full-court pressure defense and keeping the pace white-hot if possible, West Virginia began to be stung by personal fouls. Manhattan visited the foul line with regularity in the second half and would win, 89-84, to eliminate the only WVU team in history to earn a No. 1 ranking at the close of any pre-NCAA tournament season.
“What if’s” followed the season into the blue and gold history books, but nothing could be changed. Nothing could undo the final moments in the Richmond Arena, when Vincent went down.