In today’s “When Sports Were Played,” we go back to March 11, 1981, when Waynesburg College’s fast-breaking basketball team shifted gears and became the ultimate in control, nearly upsetting the second-seeded team in the NAIA tournament.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They did everything they were supposed to do.
Except win the basketball game.
While the Waynesburg College basketball team had to use its fast break offense to get to this year’s NAIA tournament, the Yellow Jackets relied on their old nemesis, the stall, to come within a point of pulling off the upset of the tournament.
Second-seeded Wisconsin-Eau Claire, with just two field goals in the second half, edged Waynesburg, 22-21, at the Kemper Arena in an NAIA second-round game.
Two free throws by the Blugolds’ Jim Behnke with 25 seconds remaining in regulation provided the winning margin.
But the Jackets, ending their season with the best record in the school’s history at 24-6, used their motion offense against taller but slower Eau Claire and earned the wrath of the offense-happy fans here as well as the Eau Claire players.
“How can I slow the ball down in a national tournament?” Waynesburg head coach Rudy Marisa was asked. “I didn’t know there were two sets of rules, one for the regular season and one for the national tournament.
“We prepared for this moment since October, when the season first got underway. In the district tournament, we showed a little more patience against Point Park and St. Vincent.
“But we had never proved that we could reach the ultimate in control. We almost passed the test tonight.”
Waynesburg never masked its intentions. The Jackets started their motion, five-man-eight, offense right from the opening tipoff, spotting Eau Claire an early 4-0 lead.
The Jackets scored their first points of the game on a six-foot jumper by sophomore forward Tim Walker and then took a 6-4 lead when Walker sank a pair of free throws and Mike Taylor converted two technical foul shots that were called against Eau Claire head coach Ken Anderson.
It was just the beginning of the frustration for the Blugolds, now 27-4 and headed for a quarterfinal game against Huron, S.D. Two more technical fouls would be called against Eau Claire and the Waynesburg game plan appeared to be taking hold.
“We had their heads, especially in the first half,” Taylor, who became Waynesburg’s all-time third-leading scorer with a total of 1,702 points, said. “They started arguing among themselves and they started getting vulgar with us. They kept saying, ‘Hey, where are you guys from?’ and ‘Play ball, don’t play chicken.’ We had them right where we wanted them.”
Eau Claire manage a 10-9 halftime lead but sank only four of 10 shots in the first 20 minutes. Waynesburg could only make two of seven field-goal attempts, but according to Marisa, the Jackets patience was effective.
“We play basketball to win,” he said. “We are usually a run-and-shoot ballclub but tonight we thought it would be better served for us to slow things down. I’m proud of my players for changing their style. It was a team decision to do it. We wouldn’t have done it unless it was a team vote.”
According to Anderson, Eau Claire made several adjustments in the second half against the Jackets. But the biggest change was in the players’ mental attitude.
“This game was much harder for us mentally than physically,” he said. “In the first half, we didn’t show the patience offensively that we had defensively and some of our guys were losing their cool.
“But I’m not mad that Waynesburg held the ball. If that’s the only way they felt they could win the game, then so be it. You’re here to win, there’s no question about that. If slowing the game down was the only way they thought they could do it, I can’t question that.”
Waynesburg took its biggest lead of the game, 13-10, when Taylor sank a technical foul with 16:05 left to play. The Jackets would lead again by three at 15-12 when sophomore guard Tim Tyler hit an 18-footer with 13:16 left, but two critical turnovers by Waynesburg gave Eau Claire a chance to gain the lead it would never relinquish.
Tyler first lost control of his dribble and then an apparent basket by senior center Paul Epps was disallowed when the Jackets were called for a three-second lane violation.
The Blugolds scored six unanswered points and then went into a stall of their own, forcing Waynesburg to foul while attempting to steal the ball.
“We got tired of watching them hold the ball,” Anderson said. “I wanted to watch us hold it for a while.”
Eau Claire managed three-point leads twice in the final minute but baskets by Tyler and Walker gave Waynesburg a faint hope of pulling off a major upset.
Epps intercepted an Eau Claire pass deep in the Blugolds’ zone with three seconds left in the game, but following a Waynesburg time out, freshman point guard Ray Natili had his dribble interrupted by Eau Claire’s Mike Morgan, ending the game in a swirl of controversy.
“If there was a foul, the game is over anyway because we only had one team foul against us. He wouldn’t have been shooting,” Anderson said.
The Jackets claim to a man referee Ken Greene blew his whistle with one second remaining.
“We would’ve had the ball in our court and we could’ve gotten the last shot,” Natili said. “St. Vincent got off a good shot against us in the last second. We might’ve done it too.”
But Greene’s decision that the foul was incorrectly called stood, ending Waynesburg’s season and prolonging Eau Claire’s.
There were no players in double figures for the game. Tyler scored eight, Taylor seven and Walker six for Waynesburg. Behnke led Eau Claire with eight.
Wisconsin-Eau Claire was perfect at the foul line, sinking 10 of 10, and made six of 17 field-goal tries. Waynesburg was 7 of 14 from the field.