|Everett Case and his 1950 Southern Conference champions.|
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© Tim Peeler, 2021
The last time Baylor made it to the NCAA tournament semifinals – long before the last three games of the season were known as the Final Four – it played NC State for the de facto national championship.
Technically, it was the NCAA consolation finals at Madison Square Garden on T,uesday, March 28, 1950. The consolation games, played in every round of the first dozen tournaments, were a relic of the early days that were eventually eliminated in the 1970s as March expanded into Madness. The finals consolation was played as the first game of a doubleheader at the famous venue, a warm-up for the championship game between City College of New York and Bradley.
However, the NCAA has never vacated the tournament appearance of those schools, two of the seven teams that were proven to be part of the worst gambling scandal in college basketball history. Others involved were New York University, Long Island University, Manhattan College, the University of Kentucky and the University of Toledo. From 1947-50, a New York City police investigation found a total of 32 players took money from organized crime-affiliated gamblers, affecting the outcomes of 86 games in 17 states, all running afoul of the city's 1945 anti-gambling laws. Another player, Jack Molinas of Columbia, was later linked to the scandal after he was suspended from the NBA for gambling.
Three of the biggest stars of CCNY's double-championship team were arrested in New York’s Penn Station on Feb. 18 1951 as they returned home from a game at Temple, primarily for their misdeeds in the previous season. Many others were investigated and forever tainted because of their involvement.
Indisputably, CCNY's Beavers of 1950 were one of the greatest stories in college basketball history, becoming the only one to ever win both the NCAA and National Invitation Tournament in the same season, back when teams could participate in both (as NC State did in 1951). Unranked in the final Associated Press poll of the season, the team made up entirely of New York City high school all-stars called themselves both "A Cinderella Team" and "A Team of Destiny," nicknames others have adopted through the years.
Eleven months later, however, after seven players were charged with fixing in regular-season games during the 1949-50 season, the city school in Hamilton Heights overlooking Harlem was banned from ever playing in Madison Square Garden again.
Many of the schools involved
self-punished themselves in the wake of the mob-tainted scandal. CCNY completely de-emphasized
sports, dropping down to what is now Division III level. It remains the only
former NCAA champion that is not currently a Division I program. LIU shut down its entire
athletic program from 1952-57 and didn’t return to Division I status until the
NY Board of Higher Education banned athletic scholarships at all City
University colleges, opening the door for players from the Big Apple to
work their way south to play for Philadelphia's Big Five schools or in the the newly organized Atlantic Coast Conference. Former St. John's coach Frank McGuire, whose team was not overtly implicated in the scandal, bolted for North Carolina, where in 1957 his starting lineup of five New York City natives went undefeated and won the NCAA Championship.
Kentucky was forced by the NCAA to cancel its entire 1952-53 season, a massive embarrassment to the state and its legendary coach, Adolph Rupp. (The 1998 HBO documentary City Dump: The Story of the 1951 CCNY Basketball Scandal, takes a deep look at the entire sordid affair, using highlights from many NC State games that season; it's currently available on HBOMax.)
Bradley, ranked No. 1 in the final 1949-50 Associated Press poll, later discovered that seven of its players conspired with gamblers to fix four games that season, and several others the next. Gene Melchiorre, perhaps the school's greatest player and the No. 1 overall pick of the 1951 NBA Draft, was banned from playing in the league and never received the honor of having his jersey retired by his alma mater.
Now, no one is arguing that the winner of that 1950 consolation final should be recognized as the true national champions, since no Final Four appearance has ever been vacated for gambling, point-shaving, academic, illicit recruiting or any other malfeasance.
Both Baylor and NC State had outstanding seasons in order to qualify for the eight-team NCAA Championship that year.
The Bears had won or shared four Southwestern Conference championships in five seasons. Coached by Bill Henderson, the Bears made their first NCAA tournament in 1946, lost to Kentucky in the 1948 title game, then returned again in 1950. It was a period of remarkable success, just two decades after one of the worst disasters in American athletics history, in which 10 Baylor players and students affiliated with the team were killed when the team bus was hit by a train on Jan. 22, 1927, in Round Rock, Texas. They are memorialized now as the Immortal 10 on Baylor’s campus.
NC State was also enjoying its first taste of national success under head Everett Case, who guided his team to four consecutive Southern Conference titles in his first four seasons on campus. In 1950, Case’s first recruiting class, known as the “Hoosier Hotshots” because most of them were from the coach’s home state of Indiana, were seniors ready to reach their greatest glory.
There was controversy, however, about
State’s berth into the NCAA tournament, since there were no automatic bids in
those days. A committee of NCAA representatives in eight geographic regions picked which schools would make the tournament.
Both Kentucky and NC State breezed to their respective league titles, and the Region 3 committee had a tough time deciding between the two. Chairman Gus Tebell, a former NC State football and basketball coach in the late 1920s who later coached at Virginia, suggested that the teams face each other in a one-game playoff to decide the bid. Case, whose team had never been to the NCAA tournament, said he would meet the 25-4 Wildcats “anytime, anywhere,” and reserved a date at Duke Indoor Stadium for the showdown.
Rupp, whose team had won back-to-back
NCAA titles, refused, pointing out that his team had beaten Villanova in
Philadelphia while the Wolfpack had lost to the same team in Raleigh. When
Tebell awarded his former employer the bid, Rupp called the decision “ridiculous,” widening
the deep chasm of dislike and disrespect between “The Old Gray Fox” and the “Baron
of the Bluegrass.” Instead, Rupp's team elected to play in the more prestigious NIT, where it lost to upstart CCNY by an embarrassing score of 89-50, still the largest margin of defeat in school history.
While other teams were playing in the NIT, Case and his fifth-ranked Wolfpack had two full weeks to prepare for the first NCAA appearance in school history. The team and its coaches received a big send-off from Wolfpack fans as its train left Raleigh's downtown station for New York.
Baylor was chosen as a representative in the West bracket after winning the SWC championship, despite having just a 13-11 regular-season record.
The Bears nipped Brigham Young, 56-55, in Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium to advance to the NCAA semifinals. They faced top-ranked Bradley in a game that was also played in Kansas City, as the West bracket played its games there to reduce travel. While powerful Bradley nipped Baylor, 58-56, both teams advanced to Madison Square Garden for a season-ending doubleheader between the last quartet of teams.
It was Case’s finest team to date, with senior Dick Dickey fully recovered from his injury-plagued junior campaign and junior Sammy Ranzino ready to step into a starring role. They were surrounded by Vic Bubas at one guard, Joe Harand at the other, and 6-10 center Paul Horvath in the middle.
The Wolfpack of that season won the inaugural Dixie Classic, beat defending NIT-champion San Francisco at Reynolds Coliseum, upset NYU in a January game at Madison Square Garden and swept through the Southern Conference tournament by beating Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Duke by an average of 17 points.
Playing in front of the sold-out Garden, Dickey drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Holy Cross senior All-American guard Bob Cousy, the top college player in the country that year. Dickey, despite being hurt in the final game of the regular season, limited Cousy to two field goals on 17 shots, Ranzino shattered the 12-year-old tournament's single-game scoring record with 32 points and the Wolfpack cruised to an 87-74 victory.
Bubas, however, sprained his ankle and was hobbled the next night in the semifinal game against CCNY.
The game was close throughout, but Dickey, Ranzino and Paul Horvath all fouled out with less than a minute remaining with CCNY holding on to a 75-73 lead. Bubas’s jumper to tie the game in the closing seconds fell short.
The final two games were played three nights later, giving Bradley and Baylor time to travel to New York.
In the opening game of the doubleheader, the Wolfpack played well, as All-American Dickey concluded his spectacular career as the school’s all-time leading scorer, in a 53-41 win over Baylor's Bears. Ranzino posted 21 points to lead all scorers. [Boxscore]
It was the start of a five-game winning streak in the Final Four for the Wolfpack, including the 1974 and ’83 championship seasons. Baylor hasn’t been back to the Final Four until this year’s event in Indianapolis.
The final game of the 1950 tournament was a repeat of the NIT
championship, a more prestigious event at the time that CCNY won 69-61 a week before in the same building. In
the NCAA title game, the Beavers had a comfortable lead until Bradley’s Melchiorre scored three straight baskets in the final two minutes to cut CCNY's lead to one point. On Melchiorre's fourth attempt in that span, three Beaver frontcourt players blocked his shot. One of them recovered saved it from going out of bounds and flung the ball down the court to sophomore teammate Norm Mager. With blood oozing from the bandage used
to cover the five stitches he received after being knocked out in the first
half, Mager laid in an uncontested layup with seven seconds to secure the 71-68 win, setting off a chant of the team's rally cry – "Allagaroo, garoo, gara!" – by the home-town crowd.
The trophy NC State received after its victory, which is on display at PNC Arena, says "NCAA 3rd Place," but despite the individual player and team punishments, CCNY’s double titles and Bradley’s
two final game appearances have stood without review or challenge from the NCAA through the decades.
Yet the two teams in the consolation final were only ones playing that Tuesday evening in New York untainted and unscathed by the worst sports scandal since baseball's 1919 Black Sox.
END NOTE: NC State was decimated a decade later by college basketball’s second point-shaving scandal, which affected multiple Southern teams, forced the cancellation of the Dixie Classic, caused both NC State and North Carolina to de-emphasize its basketball programs for the first half of the 1960s and forever broke Case’s heart.