When West Virginia played its best game
Before the proliferation of holiday basketball tournaments, there was one yearly event in Lexington, Kentucky that held the nation’s attention.
The University of Kentucky and its Baron of the Bluegrass, Adolph Rupp, had their annual splash they named the University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament, the “UKIT.”
The two-night tournament took place before sell-out crowds in excess of 11,000 at what was for the longest time the largest on-campus arena in America.
Memorial Coliseum. The House that Adolph Built. On Campus in Lexington at the University of Kentucky.
The UKIT came in late December, around Christmas time and just before the conference schedules began to take precedence on all but a few team’s minds.
Kentucky brought in three quality teams, well known to its fans and to the country at large.
There was no cable television. No network television. No internet streaming.
If you had a transistor radio or one that sat three feet off the floor and could get 50,000-watt WHAS from Louisville, you could hear the oft-worried voice of the Wildcats’ Cawood Ledford, who came on the Big Blue Network and told you about everything Kentucky basketball while advertising Old Folks (the country sausage that’s going to town), Gulf Oil, Lucky Strike cigarettes and Tastee potato chips.
Cawood was almost reverential when he spoke of the many times West Virginia and its Coach Fred Schaus brought his teams to the Memorial Coliseum to see Rupp’s team on their home court.
It was the December 1957 UKIT and Rupp had brought to town North Carolina (the 1957 national champions) and West Virginia with Schaus and the up-and-down style of play most people in the Bluegrass State enjoyed. The fourth team was Southern Methodist.
Rupp’s team had lost two non-conference games and the no-nonsense coach had already taken to calling them the “Fiddlin’ Five”.
West Virginia hadn’t lost at all. It had a promising sophomore in Jerry West, who was being blended by Schaus with senior, 6-foot-10 center Lloyd Sharrar, forward Bob Smith and guards Don Vincent and Joedy Gardner to form a quick-handed group of starters who readily united together in an unselfish manner that could unhinge many an opposing team.
Rupp placed West Virginia against North Carolina in the UKIT semifinals. Still ranked No. 1 as a carry over from its unbeaten 1957 season, the Tar Heels hadn’t lost.
West Virginia defeated Coach Frank McGuire and his group of players, largely from the New York City area, and readied for Kentucky in the tournament finals the next night.
Kentucky had Vern Hatton, Johnny Cox from little Hazard, John Crigler, Adrian Smith and soft-scoring center Ed Beck from Fort Valley, Georgia.
Rupp often tried only two reserves to his quest for victory and they were Phil Johnson and Don Mills.
Beating Kentucky on its home court was tantamount to winning the vaunted Kentucky Derby with a $10,000 claiming horse.
That night, Dec. 20, 1957, might have been the best game ever played by a West Virginia team in the last 65 years.
All five of the Schaus starters scored in double figures as the Mountaineers won, 77-70.
Although both Willie Akers and Bob Clousson played, neither of them scored.
Sharrar played about as well as he could. He scored 21 points and claimed 18 rebounds. Smith also played about as well as he could with 17 points and nine rebounds.
West scored 15 points to go along with his 10 rebounds, while Vincent had 14 points and seven rebounds and Gardner contributed 10 points and four rebounds.
What contributed mightily to the game being presented as the best West Virginia could do was the fact that the “Fiddlin’ Five” went on to win the 1958 national championship, stopping Elgin Baylor and the Seattle Chieftains, 84-72, in the national title game.
The Mountaineers plowed under their Southern Conference schedule, never losing a game to any of their brethren.
After beating both North Carolina and Kentucky in Lexington, it brought the Mountaineers the nation’s No. 1 ranking.
It was that perch above the rest of the elite that the Mountaineers retained until the NCAA national tournament beckoned at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
West Virginia lost only one regular season game (to Duke) and swept its three games in the Southern Conference tournament to ready for its trek to New York.
However, the Mountaineers were not unscathed. Duke had beaten them. And then an injury to Don Vincent caused more harm than anyone might have imagined.
In the Southern Conference semifinals in Richmond, Vincent incurred a broken leg near the close of a win over the host Spiders.
The Mountaineers won in the tournament finals against William & Mary to get the automatic NCAA tournament berth reserved for the Southern Conference champions.
Who was the NCAA first-round opponent in New York? It was the home area’s Manhattan Jaspers.
With little vocal support and a home crowd favoring the Jaspers, the Mountaineers quickly found themselves in foul trouble and no one replacement player doing even a flimsy imitation of what Vincent had given the team.
West Virginia lost by four points. The season was all finished with a 26-2 overall record.
Kentucky waded through its tournament maze, beating Temple by one point in three overtimes to reach Seattle in the finals.
Hatton scored over 30 points in the national championship game, helping Rupp win his fourth national title as Kentucky’s coach.
Back on Dec. 20, 1957, West Virginia had placed all five of its starters in double figures, had outrebounded the Wildcats, 50-46, and had tamed the Fiddlers in the final of the Kentucky Invitational Tournament . . . possibly the best game played by a West Virginia team in the last 65 years.