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Time ran out 61 years ago in Louisville

By Staff | Apr 3, 2020

From left, Willie Akers, Coach Fred Schaus and Jerry West pose with a basketball together after a game. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — When West Virginia had an 11-game winning streak going into the 1959 NCAA national championship basketball game, it had some closer-than-close wins.

The winning streak began just after a two-point loss to New York University (NYU) at Madison Square Garden.

It was in Richmond at the same site where the annual Southern Conference tournament would be played. The Mountaineers had to win that upcoming Southern Conference event in order to even qualify for the NCAA tournament.

After a low-scoring 64-62 win over the Spiders, the Mountaineers were off slowly on their way to that 11-game win streak.

Back in Morgantown at the Fieldhouse, WVU stormed past Virginia Military Institute (VMI), 99-55, in the next-to-last home game of the season. Traveling up the road to Pittsburgh, the Mountaineers trounced the rival Panthers, 90-69, in one of the more lopsided wins ever achieved on the road versus the so-called backyard rivals.

Coach Fred Schaus had his starting lineup cemented in his mind.

Jerry West, Bob Smith, Bucky Bolyard, Willie Akers and Bob Clousson were now the five starters. All of them hailed from the state of West Virginia and only Smith was from a town, hamlet or city of much more than a handful of people.

Smith was from Charleston, West from tiny Chelyan in Kanawha County, Bolyard from the crossroads hamlet of Aurora, Akers from the coalfields of Mullens and Clousson from Clarksburg.

In the conference tournament, a 100-65 romp over Davidson was quickly followed by a scrambling 85-82 win over William & Mary. In the tournament finals, West Virginia dealt Richmond an 85-66 loss to get it once again into the NCAA tournament.

Reserves Lee Patrone (Bellaire, Ohio), Butch Goode (Pineville) and diminutive Ronnie Retton (Fairview) were all contributing — some with points and others with defensive grit and a run-run spirit that helped carry the team.

The first game of the NCAA East Regional was back at Madison Square, the shrine for many a college team but the scene of too many NCAA funerals for the Mountaineers.

Quickness and a pressure defense carried WVU to an 82-68 first-round victory over Dartmouth.

The tournament then moved to Charlotte where St. Joseph’s of Philadelphia was finally vanquished in a game where free throw shooting was vital. The 95-92 final score was tiring enough, but then came the East Regional finale, and the Mountaineers outlasted Boston University, 86-82.

The success against Boston U’s Terriers sent West Virginia into the Final Four to be played at 18,000-seat Freedom Hall in Louisville. Ironically, the national semifinal game was against Louisville . . . on the Cardinals’ home court.

Breaking loose to an early double-figure lead, West and company literally ran past the homecourt Cardinals, 94-79, and earned a spot in the national championship game against California, a semifinal winner over Cincinnati and All-American Oscar Robertson.

In the title game, it was Cal taking the early lead and West Virginia attempting to move the tempo to warp speed and make it more of a up-and-down match.

West Virginia’s pressure defense made its presence known in the game’s last seven minutes, but Cal still led by a few points as the final minute bloomed.

With about one second left, a California player was fouled. He would miss the front end of his bonus free throw situation, but WVU couldn’t get off a last-ditch shot, and had to stare gloomily at the final 71-70 score that lifted the Golden Bears to the national championship.

No West Virginia team since that trip to Louisville 61 years ago has ever been tall enough to reach the national championship game. It was the end of a 29-5 season and the end of the 11-game winning streak.