Friday, March 28, 2014

March 28, 1944: The Utah Utes Claim The NCAA Crown

     On March 28, 1944, the Utah Utes were named the National Champions after defeating Dartmouth 42-40. In the waning moments of regulation The Big Green of Dartmouth trailed the Utes 36-32, before and Bob Gale and Dick McGuire hit on a pair of field goals to send the contest to into overtime.  In the overtime frame Utah's Arnie Ferren knocked down 4 points before Herb Wilkinson sank an off balance shot to seal the victory. To date, this is the only National Title for the Utah men's basketball program.

     The way that Utah entered the tournament was an unusual one. Initially, the program turned down the invitation, and chose to enter the National Invitational Tournament instead. At the time the NIT was more prestigious than the NCAA tournament. Like the NCAA tournament, the NIT was just an eight team field to decide a champion. Utah drew Kentucky in the first round of the NIT, and were handed a 46-38 loss. Meanwhile, just days before the NCAA tournament was set to take place tragedy struck the Arkansas basketball program. A coach had been killed and two players were seriously injured in a car accident. Arkansas was considered to be a favorite before the accident, but after the horrible set of circumstances hit they decided not to play. This opened the door for the Utes who would exceed all expectations by taking home the crown.

     After the loss to Kentucky in the NIT, a 2 a.m. closed door meeting was held to decide if the Utah squad would jump on a train and head to Kansas City to join the NCAA tournament. Other than the NIT field being more prestigious, another big reason why Utah joined that tournament instead was that they were guaranteed a tour of Manhattan. After knocking off Missouri, and a as heavily favored Iowa State team, the Utes squad jumped back on a train and got to tour the city once again as they were set to face Dartmouth for the National Title. Dartmouth came into the contest as a 7-point underdog. However, as they were led by Arnie Ferren the team took on the nickname "The Blitz Kids." 

     Ferren knocked down 12 points in the win over Missouri, and another six in the victory over Iowa State. He saved his best performance for last which was a 22-point performance in the victory over Dartmouth. Before the game an assistant coach from Utah overheard some Dartmouth players saying that they should play an intrasquad scrimmage so they would at least get their moneys worth. The coach relayed the conversation to his squad, which fueled the fire that was already burning hot. The Utes showed the Big Green that they not only belonged there, they also showed them how a champion celebrates.

     Two days after the victory over Dartmouth, a Red Cross Benefit that pitted Utah against St. Johns who had won the NIT Championship. St. Johns had ousted Kentucky out of that tournament. Many considered this game to be what would truly decide the National Title. Once again Utah fought their way to victory, this time by the score of 43-36. That game brought in $35,000 for the Red Cross.  By today's standard that would be more than $450,000.  From their the Utah basketball squad were treated like the Kings of New York. They dined for free at some of the finest restaurants, enjoyed free shows, and had parties held in their honor. They were much more than the Kings of New York, they were Champions.

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