© Tim Peeler, 2015
Sixty-four years ago today, at the end of a most unusual 1950-51 season, NC State and Villanova squared off against each other for the third time in three months.
The two college powerhouses were frequent opponents back then, often playing twice a season. NC State Hall of Fame coach Everett Case loved playing Philadelphia schools because of the city’s basketball tradition, its recruiting opportunities and the chance to play at the 10,000-seat Palestra. He often scheduled home-and-home game with Villanova and other Big Five schools LaSalle and Temple.
Among those who made the trip South to play for Case during that era were future All-Americans John Richter and Lou Pucillo of Philadelphia, as well as other area stars like Bob Seitz, Bucky Waters, Phil DiNardo and John Maglio.
In 1949-50, Villanova handed State a loss in the regular-season finale, but the Wolfpack went on to win the Southern Conference championship and advanced to the NCAA semifinals (the Final Four, in today’s terms).
The Main Liners won the first two games in 1950-51, the first in Raleigh in December at Reynolds Coliseum and the second at Philadelphia’s Palestra in mid-January. Coached by Jack Severance, Villanova was the first opponent to beat an Everett Case-coached team twice in the same season, extending Villanova’s winning streak against the Wolfpack to four in a row.
State’s 1951 team, despite the losses to Villanova, was one of Case’s best, with seniors Sammy Ranzino, Vic Bubas and Paul Horvath. Averaging 78.9 points a game, the Pack was the nation’s top scoring team and Ranzino was one of the top 10 individual scorers in the country, though he lost the Southern Conference scoring title by a fraction of a point to Duke’s Dick Groat.
But there was trouble afoot. The NCAA had relaxed its eligibility requirements during World War II to allow freshmen to compete in intercollegiate athletics. When it established its Sanity Code for Eligibility in 1947, it rescinded the freshman eligibility rule. The Southern Conference, however, did not, allowing freshmen—including Ranzino, Bubas and Horvath—to compete in 1947-48.
Just before the start of the 1951 Southern Conference tournament, the NCAA notified Case that his three seniors, who had all played as freshmen, would not be eligible for the NCAA Tournament, should the Pack qualify. The NCAA denied State’s final appeal on the day the Wolfpack beat South Carolina on the opening day of the Southern Conference tournament.
State beat Duke in the semifinals and Maryland in the title game and became one of a handful of schools during that time that received and accepted bids into both the more prominent National Invitation Tournament and the lesser NCAA, which had expanded from eight to 16 teams.
Ranzino, Bubas and Horvath were eligible to play in the NIT, which was bigger because it was held at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Seeded No. 2 in the tournament, Case and his team thought they had a good chance to win both events, just as the City College of New York had done the year before.
However, just before the Wolfpack left for the Big Apple, news of the first big point-shaving scandals to hit college basketball broke and a New York tabloid owned by William Randolph Hearst implicated NC State. The Charlotte office of the FBI verified that none of the implicated players were from NC State. Case took no chances, though, sequestering his team in the Downtown Athletic Club overlooking Central Park for the week and forcing them to take mid-term exams to avoid any chance of running into Big Apple gamblers.
In a foul mood, the Wolfpack laid an egg in opening round and lost to little-known Seton Hall, 71-59, after shooting just 18 percent from the field in the second half. It continued Case’s string of hard-luck appearances in Madison Square Garden.
The dejected Wolfpack returned to Raleigh to play in the first-ever NCAA Tournament game in Reynolds Coliseum, knowing it would not have its three seniors.
Making matters worse, Case’s team drew familiar-foe Villanova, which had defeated the Pack twice already that season. Not even a pregame ceremony in which the Wolfpack Club presented Case and his only assistant Carl “Butter” Anderson bright-red Cadillacs for winning their fifth consecutive Southern Conference title could cheer up the players.
In one of the more remarkable NCAA tournament games in school history, sophomores Billy “Bowlegs” Kukoy, Bernie Yurin and Bobby Goss stepped into the starting lineup for the Wolfpack and were inspired by a raucous home crowd.
Case, known for his full-court man-to-man defense and high scoring offense, threw a zone at Nova’s driving offense. The Wildcats led 38-32 at the half and it looked like the losing streak might continue.
Kukoy, stepping in for Ranzino, scored State’s first 11 points of the second half, however, and finished with a career-high 27 points for the game, hitting 12 of his 31 shots on the night.
The Pack took a 67-62 victory, ending the Wildcats’ four-game winning streak over NC State. (BOXSCORE)
Kukoy eventually graduated from NC State, received a master’s degree from Purdue and was a longtime basketball coach in his hometown of Gary, Indiana. He died on Dec. 2, 2007, at the age of 80.
Case and his team had to return to Madison Square Garden two nights later to face Illinois in the second round. Kukoy suffered a dislocated shoulder early in the first half. Now down four regular players, the Pack’s lack of depth was too much to overcome in an 84-70 loss to the Illini. The next day, State lost to Frank McGuire-coached St. John’s in the regional consolation game, 71-59.
“I think one of the games that stands out most in my memory,” Case said years later, “and the game so many State fans have said they remember the most, was the win over Villanova.”