It was the 1956-57 basketball season--the golden anniversary of the IHSA boys' state basketball tournament and the year of the pivot man in basketball.
Bob Pettit, 6-foot-9 center for the St. Louis Hawks, was in his third NBA season and already the dominant player in the game. With his first MVP award under his belt, Pettit was on his way to his third of 10 straight first-team NBA selections and would become the first pro player to score 20,000 career points.
First-year University of Kansas post player Wilt Chamberlain exploded onto the scene with the most extraordinary debut in collegiate history, scoring 52 points and hoarding 31 rebounds against Northwestern. In the NCAA tournament that same season, Chamberlain averaged 30 points and 19 boards, leading the Jayhawks into a title game they lost to North Carolina 54-53 in an unforgettable triple overtime thriller.
The nationwide press touted sixteen-year-old Jerry Lucas, a junior at Middletown High School in Ohio, as the top prep player in America. Already, papers from Columbus to Cincinnati called him the finest basketball talent in Ohio history. Lucas would lead Middletown to 76 straight wins and back-to-back state titles while accumulating nearly 2500 career points.
However, when it came to sheer numbers and across-the-board talent, no state could rival Illinois for quality pivot men at the prep level.
Art Hicks of Chicago (St. Elizabeth) led the state in scoring with 1,151 points. The 6-5 all-state sensation, easily the best high school player in the northern two-thirds of the state, averaged an unselfish 22.5 points per outing as St. Elizabeth won an Illinois prep record 48 games in a 51-game schedule. "He could average 40 points a game," said Coach Art White matter-of-factly. "He was the greatest high school player I ever saw." Not participating in the state tournament--Catholic League teams waited nearly 20 more years before joining the IHSA--St. Elizabeth dealt DeLaSalle a 59-50 defeat in the Catholic League title game, then, in a postseason match-up, clipped Public League champion Crane, 63-57, for the city championship as Hicks scored 30 points.
However, Hicks was but one member of an upstate trifecta of potent post men.
Ron Zagar of District power DePue tallied 1,014 points on the year, including 54 against Farmington on February 5 and 45 in his final high school contest as his Little Giants lost the District title, 64-63, to 26-2 Manlius.
Elgin all-American Chuck Brandt, at 6-7, 175 pounds, was tabbed by some as even better than Hicks. Netting nearly 30 points a night, Brandt played his best in big games, scoring a career high 47 against always-tough Decatur (Stephen) in early December and an additional 45 less than two weeks later as the Maroons toppled highly touted Rockford (West), the two-time defending state champions.
Ivan Jackson, 6-3 center with Springfield (Lanphier), owned the paint in central Illinois, leading the Lions to a 24-3 record, a number 10 ranking in the state, and into a sectional tournament crashed by cross-town rival Springfield (High School).
Despite a host of top-flight centers statewide, the South had the bumper crop, boasting half-a-dozen smooth-as-silk post players, including a pair of Parade
all-American selections as well as two juniors on their way to becoming the state's most prolific scorers.
All-state standout Alex Singer manned the post for "Duster" Thomas' Pinckneyville five, powering the Panthers to a mark of 29-3 and the state's number four ranking. Straight up Route 127, another all-state standout, 6-3 senior Arlen Parker, led 24-4 Greenville into the sectional tournament against top-ranked Collinsville, scoring a game-high 32 points in a losing cause. An all-around superb athlete, Parker possessed exceptional rebound and tip-in skills for a player his size.
Near the southern tip of the state, Charles "Chico" Vaughn of Tamms and Joe Aden of Dongola went head-to-head annually through their four varsity seasons. Aden, who early in the '56-'57 campaign scored 56 points against Mounds, finished his career as Illinois' second all-time leading scorer with 3,033 points. Vaughn, who surpassed 50 points in a game three times during the season, pinnacled by a 67-point outburst against Thebes in mid-December, did even better. His 3,358 varsity points and career 32.0 scoring average remain state bests.
With a throng of talented teams in the South, Vaughn never got his highly regarded Tamms Pharaohs to the state tournament, missing by a whisker in each of his final two seasons. Scoring 1,085 points on the year, Vaughn finished his junior campaign with 2,339 career points--trailing only Centralia's Dwight Eddleman by 363 and Mt. Carmel's Archie Dees by 484--with his senior season still before him.
All-American John Tidwell, 6-4, was the inside man for Earl Lee's third ranked Herrin Tigers. Called by Edwardsville coach Joe Lucco, "the best high school player I ever saw," Tidwell paced a well-balanced offense with an average of more than 21 points per game, hitting 53 percent from the field and better than 70 percent at the line, and allowed the man he was guarding an average of only eight points per game.
"John broke his left elbow playing football his freshman year," explained Lee. "After that, his left arm was always shorter than his right and he could never fully straighten it out, but it enabled him to hold a basketball at a perfect angle for a shot. I think it helped make him such an exceptional shooter and scorer."
At the head of the state's remarkable class of centers was Collinsville's Terry Bethel. Standing 6-7 and weighing 190 pounds, Bethel, a first-team all-American pick, averaged 26 points and nearly 10 rebounds an outing.
"He was such a talented player," reminisced Bogie Redmon who, four years later, would become another in a long line of all-American pivot men from Collinsville. "He was relentless on both defense and offense, and he had a sweet shot off a turn-around jumper."
Bethel, in tandem with 6-5 all-state teammate Thom Jackson (24 points per game, 15 rebounds per game), formed the finest one-two punch in the state, probably the nation, for Vergil Fletcher's undefeated Kahoks.
Illinois claimed a record three Parade
all-Americans, each of whom was still in the hunt for the state championship as the 1957 quarterfinals commenced on Friday afternoon, March 22. Two of that trio, Bethel and Tidwell, faced off in a title tilt worthy of a 50-year anniversary.
THE FIRST QUARTER
Tip-off was at approximately 8:45 PM, Saturday, March 23. Officials Claude Rhodes of Benton and James McCoskey of Murphysboro whistled the teams to attention and the jump ball ensued. Collinsville controlled the tip. Herrin opened in a zone.
"We had played Collinsville before," explained Lee, "and we felt that a zone defense was the best way for us to control Bethel and Jackson, since we gave away so much size to them and had difficulty matching up one-on-one. We discovered early on that it was a mistake."
Bethel tipped the ball to Jackson who held it straight overhead before handing it to Jim Soehlke, quarterback of the Kahoks' offense. Soehlke swung the ball on the left wing to Tracy Wilhoit, who sent it back to Soehlke at the top of the key. Bethel broke across the lane from left to right, just beneath the free throw line. Soehlke hit his favorite target; Bethel pivoted to his right and launched a picture-perfect turn-around jumper from 12 feet. Collinsville took a 2-0 lead just ten seconds into the game.
Moments later, the Kahoks again had the ball. Ernie Wilhoit misfired from 15 feet, Jackson's tip also missed, but Bethel rebounded and followed with a five-foot fade-away for a quick 4-0 Collinsville advantage.
Earl Lee called a quick time-out for Herrin and ordered a switch from a zone to an in-your-face man-to-man defense. The Tigers also picked up the intensity full-court, applying a tenacious trap off a zone press that kept the Kahoks' offense out of sync the entire evening.
Meanwhile, the Kahoks clamped a diamond-and-one on Herrin, gluing 6-2 Tracy Wilhoit to Tidwell. Wilhoit was Collinsville's premier defender, routinely called upon to stifle an opponent's top offensive threat.
"Tracy had very quick hands," said his brother and teammate Ernie Wilhoit. "He got his hands on so many passes that Tidwell seldom even got the ball. When he did, Tracy was such a tough defender that Tidwell was unable to make much of an impact offensively."
The diamond-and-one was a strategy born of necessity.
"We had to do something different after our game against Herrin in the Christmas tournament at Centralia," said Fletcher. "Tidwell killed us down there in the first half. This time we threw a very good defense against him--one we felt could contain him, and it did."
At Centralia, Collinsville had attacked Tidwell with a zone defense specifically designed by Fletcher to stop the all-American center, but the Tigers' top scorer responded with 17 first-half points, which gave Herrin a lead it held until the closing minutes of the contest.
The state championship game was a different story as Wilhoit dogged Tidwell wherever he went on the court, receiving help from teammates in the form of double-teams and traps whenever the Herrin star got the ball. The only problem with the defense was that it gambled on the Tigers' other starters not picking up the slack. As effective as the strategy was in stopping Tidwell, it left Herrin's Richard Box open on the wings.
"We threw up a good defense against Tidwell," Fletcher reiterated, "but we didn't think Box would hit so well."
The scrappy 5-8 floor general hit his first attempt of the night, moving down the left side of the lane to the baseline and nailing an uncontested 10-footer, making it a 4-2 game. Jackson countered at the other end, easing in a close-range bank shot off a jump ball tip from Bethel, upping the Collinsville margin to four, 6-2, just two minutes into the contest.
Bethel picked up a foul on the Kahoks' next trip down court. Anticipating a pass in the paint from Soehlke, who was driving right, Bethel rolled down the lane off a screen of Herrin's Willie Williams. The pass came as expected, but Bethel slammed into a well-positioned Ivan Jefferson, picking up a charge.
Jefferson missed the ensuing free throw, starting a bad dream sequence for Herrin.
The Tigers missed their first two charity attempts, five of their first seven, and finished four-of-nine for the quarter. In fact, for the game, Herrin had nearly as many misses as hits from the line, connecting only 15 times in 29 tries (52%)--the stuff of which nightmares are made.
At the four-minute mark, Tidwell fouled Bethel on an eight-foot hook shot attempt from the right baseline. Stepping to the line, where he had hit 39 of 43 attempts (91%) in three tournament games, Bethel promptly swished two more to put the Kahoks up 8-2.
Jim Gualdoni, Herrin's 6-foot jumping jack, split a pair of free throws at the other end of the floor, giving the Tigers their first point from the line. The score was 8-3.
A minute later, however, the bad dreams started for Collinsville. Bethel picked up a pair of fouls--his second and third--less than 15 second apart, putting him in serious foul trouble just five minutes into the game.
Box sent a quick pass from the baseline to Williams on the left wing. As Williams drove across the free throw line, then cut towards the right baseline, Bethel raced across the lane to cut him off, but put a shoulder into a stationary Gualdoni, drawing a charge. Gualdoni split another pair from the stripe, making it an 8-4 game.
Seconds later, as Ernie Wilhoit drove to the right baseline, Bethel moved from the high post toward the basket without ever taking his eyes off the ball. Tidwell, who was between Jackson and the basket, raced across the lane and planted himself in Bethel's path. Wilhoit fed Bethel, who turned and twisted in the air for an easy three-footer. In the process, he thumped Tidwell for yet another offensive foul.
"I had seen Collinsville play Gillespie early in the season and then we had played them over Christmas. Both times I noticed something about Bethel," said Lee. "He would set a screen, then turn and roll down the lane toward the basket. His long arms were high in the air, anticipating a pass, and he was always looking back at his teammate who had the ball, never at the basket. I was really surprised at his doing that. We simply put a player behind him in the lane and he ran over him every time he cut to the basket. I'm not sure he ever realized what was happening."
He did not. In fact, even Fletcher misconstrued what took place.
"All three fouls called against Bethel were charging fouls," the hall of fame coach recalled. "He would shoot his normal turn-around jumper and while he was in the air, the Herrin defenders would step into his space and he would come down on them and be called for a charge. The calls should have gone the other way."
Fletcher was not the first to blame Herrin's defensive success on blown calls by referees. Pinckneyville coach "Duster" Thomas was livid after Herrin pounded his Panthers by 29 points in the sectional finale, contending the Tigers' players simply fell down each time the Pinckneyville players broke for the basket, duping the officials into whistling player-control fouls against his team.
Both Thomas and Fletcher were mistaken. In each case, Coach Lee's strategy worked to perfection, especially against Bethel and Collinsville. Three times Bethel tore through the lane and three times he bowled over a Tiger in the way. The game was still getting started and the Kahoks' big boy was strapped with three personals.
It was like shooting a cheetah with a tranquilizer dart. The fouls sedated Bethel and the normally high-octane Kahoks offense, which had averaged 75 points a game on the year.
Fletcher left his all-American team leader in the contest.
"I felt that Bethel wouldn't do us any good on the bench," Fletcher explained, "so I left him in for the remainder of the quarter. It was a gamble that I felt I had to take. We'd been in similar situations before, so it was nothing new for us. I felt Bethel could still contribute even though he was hampered. We had a problem on our hands either way. If I took him out or left him in with the fouls, we wouldn't be playing at one hundred percent. You never expect your best player to pick up three fouls just four or five minutes into the game. The first quarter was a nightmare."
An equal opportunity nightmare, as Tidwell missed the subsequent free throw and the Tigers' shooting woes persisted.
"We simply couldn't hit our free throws," lamented Lee. "We kept missing from the line and couldn't cut into the Collinsville lead."
If missed free throws were not a bad enough dream, there was the added disaster of Collinsville's 11-1 rebounding edge through the eight minute stretch.
"The first quarter was a nightmare," recalled Lee.
Bethel continued to pay offensive dividends for Collinsville, connecting on a sweet fade-away jumper, after rebounding his own missed shot, giving the Kahoks a 10-4 lead. Defensively, however, he was domesticated.
Jefferson buried a net-only 17-footer, trimming the Collinsville margin to four. After a Kahoks turnover--the favorites' fourth miscue against Herrin's full-court pressure--Tidwell drove to the left baseline and dropped in his first points with a smooth eight-foot jump shot. Suddenly, it was a 10-8 game.
Soehlke countered with two free throws for a 12-8 Collinsville edge, but Box dropped in a couple of his own off a Tracy Wilhoit foul and the score was 12-10. Bethel got the last word. Taking a feed from Ernie Wilhoit, he cashed in a five-footer, giving him 10 points and Collinsville a 14-10 lead as the first quarter ended.
Eight minutes into the championship game and it was hard to tell which nightmare was worse--three fouls for Bethel or five missed free throws and only one rebound for Herrin.
A GIANT FALLS
Fans statewide drooled over the prospect of Collinsville and Elgin, unbeaten powerhouses, meeting in the 1957 championship game. The squads were one-two most of the season, with Elgin holding down the top spot most of the year before Collinsville grabbed the nod in the season ending poll.
Only once in history had two undefeated teams battled in state tournament action, and that was 43 years earlier when Freeport (15-0) clipped Centralia (20-0) by a 33-30 count in the quarterfinals. Only twice previously had the state's two top ranked teams met at Champaign, both times in the title game. In 1945, number one Champaign fell 62-54 to Decatur (Stephen) and, five years later, Mt. Vernon mauled number two Danville 85-61.
With the '57 favorites in opposite brackets, an Elgin-Collinsville clash for the state championship looked like a done deal.
Collinsville's Kahoks arrived at the supersectional a spotless 31-0, having won five postseason games by an average margin of 21 points. Collectively, the inside combo of Bethel and Jackson averaged nearly 50 points and 25 rebounds each time the Kahoks took the floor. Guard Ernie Wilhoit ran Vergil Fletcher's offense, dishing out 6.6 assists each outing, on his way to becoming Collinsville's all-time assists leader.
Elgin's Maroons hit Champaign unbeaten in 27 games. Coach Bill Chesbrough had fashioned a top-flight unit built around all-American center Chuck Brandt (28.1 ppg.) and the inside-outside strength of 6-4, 225 pound power forward Gary Kane (13.0 ppg.) and 6-5 guard Dick Becker (12.5 ppg.). Ted Tammearu (6-4) and Phil Sokody (6-1) filled in the starting five, giving Elgin the tallest team in the field of sixteen.
The inside game of Collinsville was clicking in the postseason. Against Greenville in the sectional semifinals, Bethel netted 26, forwards Jackson and Tracy Wilhoit 24 each. In the finals, the Kahoks outran archrival Centralia 100-80 as Jackson poured in 40. Four nights later, in the Salem Supersectional, Bethel scored 40 in a 76-57 romp over Charleston.
"There was an intense but healthy rivalry between Bethel and Jackson," Fletcher recalled. "So one night I would tell Soehlke to take the ball down Jackson's side, and the next night I would tell him to take it down Bethel's. They were both great scorers, strong under the basket, and were hungry for the ball, so I had to keep peace."
The win over Charleston was impressive since the Trojans were no pushover, averaging 64 points an outing while giving up just 49. Led by Dave Schick, George Pals and Chuck Parker, Charleston was 27-4 with three overtime losses and a string of 19 wins in their last 20 games. Only state ranked Paris had tripped the Trojans since the first of the year, winning in overtime 51-48. Charleston avenged that defeat in the regional finals, besting the Tigers 57-49, then stunned twelfth ranked, 28-1 Effingham (St. Anthony) and all-state sparkplug Mike Sehy to open sectional play. A 60-52 win over Robinson, another defeat avenged, gave the Trojans their state tournament date with Collinsville.
Despite out-shooting the Kahoks from the field (53 to 40 percent), Charleston attempted 18 fewer fielders and made 13 fewer free throws than their favored foes. Pals, Parker and Dave Dooley combined for 45 points, but leading scorer Dave Schick was stopped cold by Tracy Wilhoit, attempting only one field goal and scoring no points before fouling out.
In contrast to Collinsville's cakewalk, Elgin's supersectional skirmish with fifth rated Chicago Heights (Bloom) was a down-to-the-wire cardiac special.
Elgin had reeled off 26 straight wins on the strength of a potent offense that produced 73 points per game--second only to Collinsville in offensive firepower--and was beating opponents by an average of 21 points an outing. With only two regular season wins closer than 10 points, the Maroons were manhandling everyone, including their last 11 foes by double-digit margins and five postseason rivals by an average of 32 points each.
Bloom (27-1) was also streaking with 24 wins in a row, due in large measure to the Trojans' strong-arm defense that yielded only 46 points a game while its offense cranked out 67. Powered by the intimidating trio of Bob Bell, Homer Thurman and all-state player Jerry Colangelo, Bloom was strong on the boards and swift up-and-down the court. The Trojans were also the first ranked team Elgin had played on the year.
The two squads' match-up in the Hinsdale Supersectional was an instant classic.
Bloom opened strong, seizing an 18-11 advantage on the strength of 14 combined points by Bell and Colangelo, and a defense that held the Maroons' Chuck Brandt scoreless in the process. The lead was tenuous but intact deep into the fourth frame. The underdogs were still in front, 52-49, with two minutes left, but failed to score down the stretch. Phil Sokody's pair of free throws made it a one-point game, 52-51, before Gary Kane's basket with 37 seconds to play--Elgin's only field goal of the fourth quarter--won it for the Maroons 53-52.
Brandt, whose prolific scoring energized Elgin all year, was held to a meager 12 points--Kane and Sokody scoring 20 and 13 respectively--for his lowest point production since scoring only four in a 16-15 win at Rockford (East) on January 18.
The mediocre showing by Brandt confirmed the scouting reports of the assistant coaches from Herrin, the Maroons' quarterfinal opponent, that the hub of Elgin's attack was struggling offensively in recent weeks. One of Herrin's scouts, Glenn Whittenberg, would coach Maywood (Proviso East) to a large school state title in 1974.
"Our scouts were worried about Kane and Becker who were really hot at the end of the regular season and through the regional and sectional--especially Kane," said Lee, "but they felt Brandt wasn't playing up to the level of several centers in our own conference. He just wasn't on his game in the postseason."
Brandt's scoring average since the end of February was nearly 10 points below his average over the season's first three months. Having led the Maroons in scoring 19 times in his team's first 20 games, Brandt was top scorer in less than half of Elgin's games since.
Lee and the Tigers were confident heading into the marquee quarterfinal face-off. "They're big and they're unbeaten and they're favored," the first-year coach said of the Maroons, "but we will win. We've played against big men all season long. We're smaller but quicker. We block out exceptionally well under the boards and we are a superb rebounding team. I think we have the advantage."
However, Elgin had Chuck Brandt, who looked like his old self in the game's first quarter.
A Brandt free throw gave Elgin's Maroons a short-lived 1-0 lead, but Gualdoni countered with a jumper to put the Tigers in front 2-1. Seconds later, Elgin retaliated with a field goal for a 3-2 advantage--their second and last lead of the game. Herrin rapidly moved back in front 4-3, never again to trail.
Brandt tallied seven points in the first quarter--nearly 40 percent of his production on the night--but the favorites trailed 16-12. Kane took over the scoring load in the next stanza, netting eight of his game-high 22 points, but Herrin still held the margin at four, 34-30, at intermission.
The Tigers connected on 13 of 24 first-half shots, a .542 clip, with Tidwell's 11 points setting the pace. In the end, Herrin cooled off a bit, but Elgin never did warm up, shooting only .357 for the game.
Brandt picked up his third foul just a minute into the second half and Tidwell's free throw put Herrin up by seven, 37-30. The lead grew to nine, 47-38, before a late Elgin bucket closed the quarter. The underdogs were atop a 47-40 lead with only eight minutes to play.
The Tigers were still in command, 56-48, with just over five minutes remaining, when Elgin made its move. A Kane lay-up and a pair of free throws by Sokody followed a Brandt jumper from the side and, quickly, the Maroons were within two, 56-54, with 3:45 remaining.
Box hit a pair of free throws to make it a four-point game, but a textbook tip-in by Becker narrowed the gap to a basket, 58-56. When the same player calmly sank a duo of charity tosses off an Ivan Jefferson charging foul, the score was 58-all just 3:08 from the finish.
Tidwell missed once from the field for Herrin, while shots by Kane and Brandt rimmed out for Elgin as precious time raced off the clock. Willie Williams grabbed the rebound from Brandt's miss and fired the ball up court to Tidwell. Sokody picked up a foul and Tidwell's twin tosses edged the Tigers back in front, 60-58.
Box scored on a fast break lay-up off a mid-court steal, upping the lead to four points as the clock ran into red. Down-the-stretch free throws--two each by Box and Gualdoni--sealed the upset for Herrin as previously perfect Elgin stumbled 66-60.
"That was a very smart team we played," said a dejected Bill Chesbrough, not the first coach victimized by the Tigers' intricate and complicated system of screens and blocks. "They just outthought us."
One giant fell; another struggled to survive.
Galesburg's Silver Streaks had a post-season propensity for giving prohibitive favorites all they could handle. In 1955, the Streaks were 11-time losers, but took eventual bridesmaid Elgin into overtime before succumbing 66-60. One year later, first-year coach John Thiel guided Galesburg into a supersectional battle with top ranked Rockford (West). The Streaks spurted ahead 24-13 after one quarter, but could not hold the lead, losing 66-64 in double overtime to the eventual state champions.
This go-around, Galesburg was unranked and 22-6 on the season. Fueled by 6-1 all-state center Al Williams, the team's tallest starter, the Streaks stunned Bob Riley's sixth ranked, 25-2 Rock Island Rocks 23-21 in the finals of the Moline Sectional. Four nights later, in the supersectional, Galesburg eased by out-manned Freeport 60-47. The 16-10 Pretzels, having fallen seven times in their final 10 regular season games, surprised 23-6 Rock Falls 58-56 in the Sterling Sectional semifinals, then spanked 26-2 Forreston, upset winners over sectional favorite Rockford (West), to earn the school's tenth trip to state. The magic, however, disappeared against Galesburg, which led by 10 at the first stop, 13 at the half, and cruised to an easy win behind 20 points from Bob Hoffman, 16 more from Williams and 11 from Doug Mills.
However, most experts felt that the Streaks were in over their heads against the state's top ranked squad.
To the surprise of few, if any, in attendance, Collinsville bounded to a swift 9-0 lead and appeared ready to run Galesburg out of Huff Gym, but the Streaks refused to fold, scoring three straight times to pull within 9-6 half-way through the quarter. The Kahoks struck back, using the inside muscle of Bethel and Jackson to end the frame with an 8-4 run, claiming a 17-10 edge at the first stop.
The favorites continued to pound the ball inside, scoring six of the second quarter's first eight points, to move ahead by 11, 23-12. For the game, Bethel and Jackson would combine for 50 points on 15-of-28 shooting from the field (54%). Collinsville's three other starters would attempt only six shots, hitting but two. The teams essentially traded baskets the rest of the half with the Kahoks getting the last score for a 37-24 lead at the break.
Catching everyone by surprise, Galesburg stormed out of the gate to start the second half, book-ending a Collinsville basket with a pair of 6-0 surges to close within 39-36 with 4:22 remaining in the third quarter. The Kahoks, however, flexed their muscles, refusing to give any more ground, and held a slimmer-than-expected 45-40 lead with a quarter to play.
Vergil Fletcher's boys began to pull away in the final frame, carving out a 59-51 advantage halfway to the end, but they would never score another field goal. Galesburg turned up the heat at both ends of the floor, employing a ferocious full-court press and quickening the pace on offense in an effort to close the chasm. Bob Hoffman's two free throws drew the Streaks within six, 59-53, and when Doug Mills buried a 20-footer, it was 59-55 with 3:00 left. Seconds later, Soehlke missed a free throw for Collinsville and the Streaks struck again. Hoffman hit from 20 feet and it was a two-point game, 59-57.
At the 2:18 mark, Galesburg committed a foul and Bethel stepped to the line for the Kahoks over the vehement objections of Streaks coach John Thiel, who insisted that Jackson, not Bethel, should be at the line. Bethel, who had been deadly at the line thus far in the tournament, nailing 34 of his 37 tries, was a perfect 16-of-16 for the game. Jackson, on the other hand, was only two-of-seven. Thiel lost the argument and Bethel sank both freebies, giving himself all 11 of Collinsville's fourth quarter points, and his team a slim 61-57 lead.
The Galesburg coach was fuming over fouls long before the Bethel-or-Jackson fiasco. For the game, the referees whistled the underdogs for 23 fouls, to only seven for Collinsville, and the Streaks attempted just 12 free throws to a whopping 37 for the favorites. Galesburg actually outscored the Kahoks 50-34 from the field, but a 27-9 edge in made free throws gave Collinsville a decided advantage. Still, the underdogs nearly won it.
The Streaks worked the ball for a quality shot. Hoffman took it, a short jumper with 1:39 to go, and Galesburg was back within a pair, 61-59. The Streaks' pressure defense was unable to phase the Collinsville five down the stretch and, finally, Bethel was fouled just 22 seconds from the horn. For the first time on the night, though, he failed to connect, and Galesburg nabbed the rebound. The Streaks missed the shot that would have tied the game; Bethel rebounded and whipped the ball to Soehlke, who was dribbling up the court when the game ended.
That is when the melee began.
"One of the Kimbro twins from Galesburg jumped on Soehlke at the end of the game, after the horn sounded," remembered Ernie Wilhoit. "That sent the Collinsville fans onto the floor and that, in turn, emptied the Galesburg bleachers. It was a scary moment. Coach even got knifed."
Fletcher sustained a cut to his hand, which several witnesses, including a pair of newspaper reporters, attributed to a knife-wielding Galesburg fan. Fletcher dismissed the suggestion. "It was just a fingernail," he said, and left it at that. Police broke up the brawl while Collinsville fans escorted the Kahoks from the floor to the dressing room, but the damage was done.
Reserve Bob Vetter had a severely sprained ankle and Bethel was hurting. Beyond that, the experience spooked the normally unflappable Kahoks. Years later, Fletcher would look back and admit, "We were so beat up after the Galesburg game, especially Bethel, that we couldn't come back with any intensity on Saturday." Ernie Wilhoit agreed. "We were physically beat up and emotionally unnerved," he said. "I'm not sure we ever recovered."
In the Kahoks' favor was the fact that they had played Friday's second afternoon game and had plenty of time to rest for a Saturday afternoon semifinal spar with unheralded Ottawa and a possible title game match with unbeaten Elgin.
Little did anyone know at the time that only a few hours later a giant-killer would fell the mighty Maroons and be waiting in the wings for all-winning Collinsville.
THE SECOND QUARTER
State tournament history affirms that teams win championships with prominent players coming up big in the final game. Teams do not always win with that scenario, but rarely win without it.
In the previous 35 years of IHSA tournament action, only one team captured a title game with its premier player held in check. That was in 1943 when tournament favorite Paris (36-2) defeated Moline 46-37 despite the fact that standouts Dick Foley and Dave Humerickhouse managed only nine points on three-of-20 shooting. Humerickhouse, generally regarded as the best player in the state, had an especially miserable night, failing in all 13 attempts from the field and scoring a solitary point. Unheralded teammates Gordon Taylor and Delbert Glover saved the day, teaming for 22 points in the Tigers' win.
If Herrin was to upset Collinsville, an unheralded player would have to step up--better sooner than late--for defensive whiz Tracy Wilhoit was frustrating all-American John Tidwell. Having scored only two points in the first quarter, Tidwell would fail to score at all in the second.
"I kept expecting Tidwell would break loose and hit a few for us," said Herrin coach Earl Lee, "but it never happened. Of course, we were a very balanced team, very good at picking up the slack when Tidwell wasn't scoring."
Picking up the slack against a team the quality of Collinsville was a monumental challenge, but the type of challenge on which the Tigers thrived.
"It takes five men to play this game when you get this far in the tournament," Lee told reporters on the eve of the "Sweet Sixteen." "Any of these kids might beat the opponent either on offense or defense. The main thing is to get the job done, and I don't care who does it. I can depend on any one of these boys. The thing that makes us a good team is that we have five players who can do anything."
Besides balance, there was another factor working to Herrin's advantage at the start of the second quarter. Collinsville coach Vergil Fletcher had changed his mind after the first eight minutes of the championship game and decided to bench Terry Bethel, even though the big boy's point total matched that of the entire Herrin team.
"I usually left Bethel in with three early fouls and just let him play it out," clarified Fletcher, "but I knew we were playing a tough opponent in the most important game of the year, so I decided to put him on the bench and save him for the second half." Fletcher inserted Bart Basola into the lineup as Bethel's replacement and moved Jackson from his forward position to the pivot.
The Kahoks' mentor looked like a genius early on as Basola rifled in a 15-foot jumper from the right of the free throw line, nudging Collinsville ahead by six, 16-10. It looked like the Kahoks were not going to miss a beat with Bethel on the bench, but the Tigers were not about to slink away in defeat.
At the other end, Williams wowed the Huff Bym crowd when he dribbled down the right side of the lane, faked left, got Basola into the air, then spun right under the lanky defender's long arms and banked a lean-in seven-footer, whittling the margin to four points, 16-12.
That, according to Ernie Wilhoit, is when Jackson starting dropping passes in the paint.
"Three early fouls on Bethel didn't faze me--that had happened before, and there was nothing unusual about it," said Wilhoit. "It was when Jackson started mishandling passes, which was completely out of character, that I got worried. I don't know, maybe the pressure was getting to him."
However, the game itself told a different story.
Wilhoit and Soehlke fed Jackson in the paint six times during the second quarter. Four times, he caught the pass, shooting three times, and missing each try. Defenders tipped away the other two passes.
The Collinsville guards, most noticeably Ernie Wilhoit, would go up for what looked like jump shots, then, with a shooting motion, send an extremely high-arching pass into Jackson or Bethel as the big boys moved toward the basket. The game's official scorer even credited Ernie Wilhoit with missed shots that were, in fact, towering lob passes under the basket. For the game, eight of those passes into the paint resulted in scores, defenders batted away seven more, and another pair sailed too high to be handled. At no time did Jackson, or for that matter Bethel, muff the play.
Whatever the reason, Collinsville's inside game hit a snag, and Herrin was quick to take advantage.
Following the Williams fielder and a Jackson miss from five feet at the other end, a free throw by Gualdoni and a pair by Jefferson inched the Tigers within a point, 16-15. Collinsville missed a pair of close-in tries, as well as a free throw, before Jackson's rebound put-back of an Ernie Wilhoit miss broke a five-minute Kahoks scoring drought, pushing the favorites in front, 18-15. Seconds later, Soehlke scored on a running 12-footer from the left of the lane and it was a 20-15 Collinsville lead.
There were two minutes left in the first half when the Herrin run started. Though no one knew it at the time, the Tigers had just found their man to come up big. Ironically, he was the smallest player on the floor, Richard Box.
Box countered with a shot nearly identical to Soehlke's, Jefferson followed with a free throw, and Box struck again, penetrating the lane to within 10 feet of the basket and finding nothing but net. That tied the game at 20, erasing the Collinsville lead for the first time on the night. Then, in the final seconds of the quarter, Box found himself on the lay-up end of a turnover and fast break. Taking a three-quarter court pass from Williams, the streaking Box never broke stride, scoring only seconds from the horn.
The basket gave Box six points in the final 90 seconds of the half and propelled the underdog Tigers into a surprising 22-20 lead at the break. Box headed to the locker room with 10 of Herrin's 22 points as he consistently made the Kahoks pay for a defense focused on Tidwell.
"Box was open repeatedly on the wing," remembered Ernie Wilhoit, "and he killed us from there. One time, he would penetrate the lane; the next time, he would hit a jumper. He was everywhere, doing everything. The defense against Tidwell worked to perfection and forced Herrin to find another player to come up big. Box was that player. He came up big in the biggest game of his career."
Halfway through, the 1957 title game had all the earmarks of an unforgettable photo finish. If so, it would not be the first time the two squads ran nose-to-nose down to the wire.
A MERRY KAHOKS CHRISTMAS
December 27-29, 1956 marked the dates of the 14th annual Centralia Holiday Tournament, held at historic Trout Gym. Four of the state's top teams--Collinsville, Herrin, Pinckneyville and Rock Island (Alleman)--were in the hunt for the title. Quincy, Marion and the host Orphans gave the field phenomenal depth.
Collinsville bashed Benton by 28 points on the first day of play while Herrin was 18 better than highly regarded Litchfield. The wins set the stage for a holiday classic. The Kahoks were 7-0 with an average per-game margin of victory of 24 points. The Tigers, 9-0 on the young campaign, were thumping foes by 25 points an outing.
Behind John Tidwell's 17 first-half points, and 13 more in the second quarter from teammate Richard Box, Herrin grabbed the upper hand early and was still in command of the contest, 58-51, halfway through the fourth quarter. However, when Collinsville clamped on a full-court ball- press, the complexion of the game quickly changed.
"I would like to think that I improved the game of basketball in two ways," remarked Fletcher, "with the turn-around jump shot and the ball-press."
In time, the ball-press became a staple item in Fletcher's defense, but during the 1956-57 season, it was a brand new, part-time tactic used when the Kahoks needed to make up ground fast. Not until 1961 did the press become a patented part of the Collinsville arsenal.
"When Redmon went down with a broken ankle and missed nine games during the 1960-61 season, I asked the players which defense they wanted to use while Bogie was out," Fletcher explained. "Without hesitation, they said the ball-press. It worked so well that we used it the rest of the season and for all the years that followed."
Early in his career as a basketball coach, Fletcher serendipitously picked up a thin book with an unassuming cover. Written sometime in the 1920s, the book bore the bland title "The Shifting Ball Defense." The author had devised a half-court defense that constantly shifted in relation to the ball. Fletcher was quick to see that with some key adjustments to the theory, the defense could become a devastating three-quarter-court and full-court weapon.
"He had plays that were so innovative," remembered Bogie Redmon of Fletcher, "that no other coach even thought about them. The ball-press was just one of his innovations, but what a work of art it was."
Fletcher's finished product was indeed a work of art, and it turned the tide against Herrin in the holiday tournament's quarterfinals.
The press produced successive turnovers and a pair of lay-ups in its first ten seconds of use, getting Collinsville quickly within three, 58-55. Williams connected for Herrin, but Tracy Wilhoit's tip-in once more narrowed the gap. Soehlke's two free throws preceded a charity miss by Tidwell, and when Bethel followed with a free throw for the Kahoks, the game was tied at 60-all.
Tidwell missed a free throw seconds later, but Tracy Wilhoit nailed his try at the other end for a 61-60 Collinsville lead. Another foul, with 1:48 remaining, put Tidwell back at the line. He sank both attempts to tilt the game back into Herrin's favor, 62-61.
With less than a minute to play, Herrin rebounded a Collinsville miss, and an outlet pass found its way to Ivan Jefferson at the center circle.
Lee picked up the story from there. "Jeff got the ball at midcourt on the break, but he was playing with a pulled Achilles tendon. He wasn't able to make a smooth transition from catching the pass to dribbling down court. As a result, he carried the ball, and the turnover gave it to Collinsville."
There were 50 seconds left.
Bethel worked loose for a lay-up 20 seconds later and the Kahoks had the advantage, 63-62. With 23 seconds remaining, Box missed a clutch free throw, but got his own rebound. He fed Gualdoni whose short jumper put Herrin back in front, 64-63, with 15 seconds on the clock.
Collinsville worked for one shot. Bethel took it from close range but missed. Ernie Wilhoit, who was charging the basket on the set play, tipped in the misfire, barely beating the buzzer. The Kahoks survived, 65-64.
"I don't remember many specifics from that game," said Fletcher years later. "I remember that it was the closest game we had all year. We won on a last-second tip-in. We were fortunate to come away with a victory."
For Herrin, the defeat was devastating. "The players sat in the locker room after the game and cried," recalled Lee. "It was a heart-breaking loss to a great team. What hurt the most was that we had them beat and they came back and won it off a missed shot. I told the boys, 'We'll get them in the state tournament.' Of course, there was no way I could have known that, but it seemed as if we were almost destined to meet again."
The two teams were nearly three months from the state finals. Surviving their respective regionals and sectionals was far from automatic, a reality neither coach missed.
From retirement, Fletcher would later confess, "Getting out of our region was routinely more difficult than winning at Champaign. It was always harder to get there than it was to win there." In similar fashion, Lee admitted, "We felt that if we could just get out of Southern Illinois, we would win state."
However, standing squarely in the path out of Southern Illinois were numerous obstacles, the most formidable for Herrin being Coach Merrill "Duster" Thomas and his Pinckneyville Panthers, the Deep South's perennial power.
Pinckneyville's pair of regular season losses came at the hands of Herrin and Collinsville. The Kahoks won a tight 56-54 decision for the Centralia Holiday Tournament crown and, just weeks later, the Tigers claimed a close 45-42 victory. By the time the postseason rolled around, however, the Panthers, though ranked one place below Herrin in the statewide poll, were tabbed the team to beat in Southern Illinois.
"Duster" Thomas had guided Pinckneyville to 12 regional championships in the previous 14 years, as well as to eight sectional titles, the last six consecutively. That left the Panthers one sectional title short of the record seven straight, shared by Paris (1938-1944) and Champaign (1943-1949). State champions in 1948, Pinckneyville had captured third place four times, including three years in a row from 1953-1955. In 1956, Pinckneyville snuck past Herrin in double-overtime to cop the sectional crown.
As the '57 season moved into mid-March, the Panthers and Tigers were once more on a collision course, headed straight for the championship game of the Herrin Sectional.
In the sectional semifinals, Pinckneyville ousted District power Tamms (27-1), led by scoring sensation Chico Vaughn, to notch its 18th consecutive victory. Meanwhile, Herrin caught a break. East St. Louis (Senior) shocked cross-town rival East St. Louis (Lincoln) 62-57 for the championship of the Cahokia Regional Tournament. The Tigers, led by hot-shooting Bennie Lewis, who would later coach Lincoln to four large school state titles, including three straight, were 28-0 and ranked 11th in the AP poll before stumbling. The upset minded Flyers carried a lackluster 14-12 record into their game against Herrin, losing handily to the Tigers, 53-38.
Herrin (26-2) met Pinckneyville (29-2) for the sectional title on Friday evening, March 15. Win or lose, it was "Duster" Thomas' last season as the Panthers' coach. Earl Lee, who had coached one year at Brighton before heading to Herrin as an assistant, was in his first year at the helm of the Tigers, having replaced Lee Cabutti, who left Herrin in the off-season for the head coaching position at Champaign (Central).
Herrin held the first quarter edge, 17-16, and then turned the game into a rout with an extraordinary display of shooting. Hitting 58 percent from the field (22-38) and 78 percent from the line (32-41), the Tigers held leads of 33-22 at the half and 47-30 at the third stop on their way to an impressive 76-47 runaway win. It was the worst defeat for Thomas' Panthers since a 30-point loss in the 1948 Centralia Holiday Tournament.
Tidwell topped all scorers with 24 points, while Jefferson netted 16, Box 15, Gualdoni 10 and Williams eight. Thomas, who had claimed that his '57 squad was his best in nearly 20 years at Pinckneyville, missed a record-tying seventh consecutive trip to the state tournament.
On March 19, at West Frankfort, Herrin met Mt. Vernon, a conference foe the Tigers had defeated twice on the year, the last time by only two points. Despite the Rams' unimpressive 17-11 ledger, they entered the postseason on a roll, scoring 102 points in their final regular season game, then beating three regional opponents by an average of 26 points and winning a pair of sectional spars by an average of 13. The last team to fall was 13th ranked, 23-5 West Frankfort in the sectional finale. Like Herrin, West Frankfort had hung a pair of regular season defeats on the Rams. In all, Mt. Vernon had faced six state ranked teams on the year, losing by an average margin of less than five points.
The Rams were also rich in state tournament tradition. On hand for the 11th time, Mt. Vernon had six trophies to its credit, including one in each of its last four visits. The four-time titlists had won better than 70 percent of their state tournament games and were riding a current tourney win streak of five games, 15 wins in 16 tries. In addition, the Rams had not lost a first round state tournament game since 1931 and had never lost in the tournament to a team from southern Illinois.
In the supersectional, Herrin grabbed a 6-0 lead and never trailed, though the Rams were within five points as late as the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter. A 10-2 run to close out the game gave the Tigers a 57-44 win. Williams, Tidwell and Jefferson joined forces to match the Mt. Vernon point total. It marked the first time since 1945 that a team had toppled the Rams three times in the same season.
Meanwhile, Collinsville's Kahoks roared through five postseason games with the greatest of ease, clobbering opponents to the tune of 81-60, beating a pair of quality teams for the third time and disposing of the highly touted Centralia Oprhans a second time. The impressive wins simply fueled speculation that the Kahoks would win the state title going away. In fact, since mid-January, Collinsville had allowed only one team closer than 13 points and had pounded eight others by at least 25.
"We had a great team," Fletcher recalled. "We worked hard and we played well. In fact, we were playing our best ball of the season through the regional and sectional. I felt that if we continued to play at that level, there was no team in the state that could beat us. We were not overconfident, and we certainly weren't cocky, but we were a very confident team."
With the finals only days away, Herrin had gained a small but devoted following within the press and coaching fraternities. The Tigers' lopsided win over Pinckneyville and their third win of the year over tourney veteran Mt. Vernon opened many previously closed and skeptical eyes. Steadily growing speculation was that twice-beaten Herrin, not unbeaten Elgin, would be Collinsville's final game foe on March 23.
Perhaps the two teams really were destined to meet again.
THE THIRD QUARTER
The third quarter of the state title game was a seesaw affair featuring four ties and eight lead changes. Neither team scored more than two points before the other team responded with a score of its own. "It was like watching a ping-pong game," quipped one reporter, as first Collinsville scored, and then Herrin, taking turns all the way to the horn. It was as back-and-forth as eight minutes of high school basketball can be.
Basola was on the bench and Bethel back in the game as the third quarter commenced. Immediately, the Kahoks set about working the ball underneath to their inside size and strength, the talented tandem of Bethel and Jackson. It had been Fletcher's strategy from the beginning and it would be to the end. In fact, it was vintage Fletcher.
"Vergil Fletcher was a master at getting his big men open under the basket," said Bogie Redmon, an all-American center for Collinsville's 1961 state champions. "A lof of other teams had big men, just like Collinsville, but the difference was that they couldn't get the ball to them underneath. The thing that set Fletcher apart from other coaches was his ability to get the ball in his big men's hands for close-in, high percentage shots. There was never anybody who did it any better."
The basis for Collinsville's inside success was a relatively simple thing. "We practiced it, " explained Fletcher. "Over and over again, we practiced getting the ball inside. We practiced it more than any other team in the state. No team worked any harder or longer than we did on setting the screens and getting the ball to our big men under the basket. The result was that we were usually successful--not by chance or by magic, but because of hard work and long hours on the practice floor."
Practice paid off in the third quarter of the state championship game.
Jackson drew first blood for Collinsville, taking a beautiful lob pass from assist wizard Ernie Wilhoit, notching a lay-up and knotting the score at 22-all. Herrin went on the attack but Jefferson missed a hotly contested five-footer. Tidwell grabbed the rebound in a crowd and muscled up a shot for his first points in more than 10 minutes. The Tigers were once more atop the slippery slope, 24-22.
Bethel brought the crowd to its feet at the other end, taking a perfect lob pass from Tracy Wilhoit, pivoting toward the baseline, streaking to the opposite side of the basket and scooping in a spectacular reverse lay-up. The tie, however, was short-lived. Box faked Tracy Wilhoit into a foul, and then hit one of two free throws for a 25-24 Herrin advantage.
Jackson's pair of charity tosses at the 6:02 mark moved the Kahoks ahead by one, but Box answered from 16 feet to change the lead once more. Bethel's pair from the line put Collinsville back in front, 28-27, before Herrin responded with another crowd-pleasing play. Box skipped a pass across the lane to Gualdoni, who got Bethel off his feet with a shot fake, then ducked and drove to the baseline where he hit a fade-away eight foot shot over a charging Tracy Wilhoit. Herrin once more had the lead, 29-28.
In a flurry under the Collinsville basket, Jackson missed a short shot, grabbed the rebound and missed again. This time Bethel grabbed the rebound, spun and flipped in yet another reverse lay-up to the delight of a packed house. It was 30-29 Collinsville with 3:50 left in the period.
Bethel's basket, his fifteenth and sixteenth points of the night, gave the Kahoks their ninth field goal in the paint--their third straight from three feet or closer. In fact, Collinsville had only two fielders outside of the paint. Fletcher's inside game had found its groove, but Herrin would not back down.
"Collinsville kept pounding the ball inside during the third quarter," Lee remembered. "I think Bethel and Jackson scored all their points."
However, as the Kahoks' inside offense flowed with precision and power, their defense hit a snag. Tracy Wilhoit picked up his third foul with nearly 11 minutes still to play. The stalwart defender was doing his job against Tidwell, holding the Tigers' top scorer to only four points late into the third quarter, but his success came at a price. It meant that Collinsville's top defensive and offensive players now had a trio of fouls each.
Tidwell hit the free throw, evening the score at 30-all.
Jackson's jumper--a 13-footer from the left wing--lifted the favorites into a 32-30 lead with just 1:42 showing on the clock. The basket gave the Kahoks a dozen points in the quarter, six each by Jackson and Bethel.
Bethel missed his last shot of the quarter, a 10-foot hook that found the front of the rim. Herrin grabbed the rebound, headed down court, and Box set up the offense. The playmaker found Gualdoni posting up against Jackson and threaded him a pass. Gualdoni's fade-away jumper from three feet over Jackson's outstretched arms ended the scoring, and the quarter, forcing a 32-32 standstill only eight minutes from season's end.
THE ROAD TO TITLE TOWN
Quality teams littered the road to the 1957 state title.
Third ranked Herrin sent fourth ranked Pinckneyville packing in the sectional finals. Ninth ranked Rock Island (Alleman), sparked by Dave Sullivan, fell to number six Rock Island 44-42 in the regional finals. Unheralded Galesburg then ambushed the Rocks and all-state star Larry Dunlap.
Also failing to reach the "Sweet Sixteen" were a throng of talented teams: seventh ranked East Peoria, powered by John Fry; tenth ranked Springfield (Lanphier); unbeaten East St. Louis (Lincoln), ranked eleventh; number-12 Effingham (St. Anthony); Francis Floren-fueled West Frankfort, thirteenth in state polls; Bloomington, number 14, energized by all-stater Larry Spahn; and fifteenth ranked Paris, 25-game winners in Coach Ernie Eveland's next-to-the-last year at the helm.
Number-eight Pekin was one of only five ranked teams to avoid the upsets and make the field of sixteen at Champaign. Joining the Chinks for the finals were fifth ranked Chicago Heights (Bloom) and the state's top three teams: Collinsville, Elgin and Herrin.
Of those ranked teams, only Collinsville and Herrin fought through to the semifinals.
After routing out-manned Charleston in the Salem Supersectional, the Kahoks edged Galesburg in "Elite Eight" action and drew Ottawa (Township) in Saturday's first semifinal skirmish.
Ottawa's Pirates were 28-5 for the campaign and coached by veteran Gilbert Love, who played on Griggsville's 1928 fourth place finishers. Led all year by 5-10 playmaker Francis Clements, the Pirates upset Pekin 58-56 in the Peoria Supersectional on Gerry Varland's two free throws halfway through sudden death overtime. The Chinks had led the game 52-49 with 13 seconds left in regulation. Then, in the quarterfinals, Ottawa pulled away from Champaign in the closing minute to pocket a pulsating 54-51 win. Champaign's Maroons, under first-year coach Lee Cabutti, barely survived 29-2 Maroa-Forsyth 57-56 in the Decatur Supersectional. The Trojans actually led the Maroons 54-53 with only three minutes remaining, but could not hold on down the stretch.
In the semis, Collinsville opened a 15-12 first quarter lead, but could not put away the pesky Pirates. An 8-4 spurt to start the second session pulled Ottawa within 20-19, but the Kahoks closed strong to claim a 35-30 half-time cushion. Eight minutes later, that cushion had deflated to a slender two points, 48-46, but a 12-2 run to open the final frame put the Kahoks beyond reach. Collinsville advanced to the title game with a 69-61 victory as the Wilhoit brothers, Ernie and Tracy, hit for 22 and 15 points respectively. Bethel and Jackson combined for 32 more. Clements paced the Pirates with 18.
Ernie Wilhoit was unusually hot. After hitting just one of 15 fielders through the first two tournament games, Wilhoit exploded with seven-of-12 shooting against Ottawa. "I just did what the offense allowed me to do," said the Kahoks' wingman. "I didn't know I was hot. I was open, so I took the shots. It was just part of the flow of the game." With Collinsville now clicking outside as effectively as inside, Fletcher's five appeared invincible heading into Saturday night's title tilt.
In the second semifinal game, Herrin met 30-2 Quincy (Notre Dame), with first-year coach Glen Runde at the helm. Fueled by all-state go-to man John Flynn (6-5, 220) and 6-4 Bill Kurz, the Raiders snapped Quincy's string of 15 straight regional titles with a 69-60 upset win, and then toppled Beardstown before sneaking past host Jacksonville, 63-60 in overtime, for the sectional crown.
The Raiders routed 19-11 Springfield in supersectional action, carving out a 54-38 lead after three quarters and cruising to a comfortable 65-53 win as all five starters scored between nine and 16 points. Three nights later, Notre Dame met Jack Burmaster's 21-3 Evanston Wildkits and all-state sensation Dave Tremaine, a 6-2 ball-handling wizard and scoring machine who netted 29.8 points per game. Tremaine scored 29 points in the Wildkits' 67-60 win over 23-4 Chicago (Crane) in a first-round game at Northwestern University.
Tremaine scored 30 in the quarterfinals, but the Raiders used a fourth quarter offensive explosion to wipe out a one-point Wildkits lead and claim a 70-63 win. Kurz scored a game-high 31 points on 12-of-19 (63%) accuracy from the field, while teammate Roger Trimpe threw in 22 more for the winners.
Scoring did not come as freely the next afternoon as the Herrin defense completely stifled the Notre Dame offense, holding the Raiders to less than 30 percent shooting from the field (13-44). Still, the underdogs were within two at the half and scored the first points of the third quarter to force a 30-30 tie, but the Tigers claimed 21 of the next 29 points and the rout was on.
"That spurt by Herrin--it killed us," said Runde. "Then their defense took over." The Tigers seized a 51-38 lead after three sessions and pulled away for an easy 68-47 triumph. Tidwell topped all scorers with 24 points and Jefferson added 20 in a dominant offensive performance by Herrin.
However, defense was where Herrin was consistently dominating tournament opponents, holding a trio of foes to .345 shooting (49-142) and shutting down two of the state's most potent inside games in Elgin and Quincy (Notre Dame). Collinsville, though, seemed to be another story entirely, hitting nearly 50 percent of its fielders through three tournament games. Especially lethal were Bethel and Jackson, teaming for 45 points per game on 64 percent shooting from the field.
The Tigers' defense would have to trump the Kahoks' offense if Herrin were to pull off one of the biggest upsets in championship game history.
THE FOURTH QUARTER
The fiftieth state final remains one of the most electrifying games in tournament history--and for good reason.
"We knew we had a great team--one of the best teams ever at Collinsville--and some great players," said Fletcher. "We knew Herrin was a great team with great players, too. The result was predictable: a great game with a great finish."
The final frame began, as had the previous three, with the tip won by Collinsville.
Soehlke found Tracy Wilhoit on the wing. Wilhoit found Bethel underneath, but the ball bounced free and back to Soehlke at the point. Soehlke whipped the ball around to Jackson, left of the free throw line, who misfired from 15 feet. Bethel's tip was no good, but a charging Ernie Wilhoit put in the ricochet for a 34-32 Kahoks' lead.
Tracy Wilhoit's fourth foul, a valiant attempt to strip the ball from Tidwell who was slashing toward the basket, sent the Tigers' standout to the line, where he hit one of two tries to draw Herrin within a point, 34-33.
A series of miscues by both squads kept the tension mounting. Finally, Tracy Wilhoit spotted Jackson down court on a breakaway off a Tidwell missed shot. Wilhoit's court length pass caught Jackson in stride and the power forward, known more for muscle than finesse, banked in a tricky on-the-run shot for a three-point Collinsville lead with five minutes to play.
Jefferson's rebound and spin move off a missed Gualdoni fielder, in a crowd of defenders, brought the Herrin bench to its feet and drew the Tigers back within one, 36-35. Next, Jefferson won the battle for the rebound of Jackson's missed free throw, raced down court with the ball, and made another acrobatic spin move in the lane. Fouled on the lay-up attempt, he hit his first shot, knotting the score at 36-all, but missed his second.
With 4:15 remaining, Ernie Wilhoit returned the favor when his underhand charity toss rimmed out. The rebound popped out to Box who darted down court and found Williams on the left wing. Jackson sprang over to defend, but Williams squirted by him to the left, drove the baseline and lifted a high-archer toward the hoop. The ball sailed over Jackson's extended arms and drew nothing but nylon for a 38-36 Herrin lead.
Soehlke led the Collinsville charge to the other end, but Williams abruptly forced the Kahoks' floor general to pick up his dribble. Soehlke tried to flip a quick pass to Ernie Wilhoit on the right wing, but Williams got a hand on it. Suddenly, a free ball was on the floor with Wilhoit and Box both streaking towards it. Box stretched out and batted the ball the direction he was heading, toward the Collinsville basket. Wilhoit overran it, and Box took control near the sideline.
On the Herrin side of the floor, Box found Williams on the right wing. Williams passed the ball back to the top of the key where Box grabbed it and was quickly in the air. His 18-footer hit bulls-eye and the Tigers had their largest lead of the game, 40-36.
Soehlke quickly responded, driving the right side of the lane after Collinsville had broken the Herrin press and hitting a clutch eight-foot jumper to narrow the gap to a pair of points, 40-38.
Without warning, the Kahoks shifted their defense into a full-court ball-press--the same zone that had undone the Tigers at Centralia less than three months earlier. However, as Tracy Wilhoit made a quick move to intercept a Jefferson pass into the lane, he charged into Gualdoni, picking up his fifth foul. There was 2:24 remaining.
Gualdoni hit and missed, raising the Herrin lead to three points, 41-38.
Bethel nearly picked up his fourth foul seconds later. Taking an inbounds pass along the baseline, he lowered his shoulder and drove for the basket, leveling Tidwell in the process. The crowd reacted in disbelief when the officials whistled Tidwell for a block and Bethel stepped to the line. He missed--his first and only miss on the night.
Jefferson snagged the rebound and Herrin raced to the other end. Box found an opening on the left wing but misfired. With 1:33 showing on the clock, Bethel went over Gualdoni's back for the rebound and drew his fourth foul. Gualdoni drew metal--his second straight miss and sixth on the night in 10 tries from the line. Jefferson got his hand on the ball, tipping it back to Gualdoni, who dribbled right and popped a 10-footer, which put Herrin in complete command of the contest, 43-38.
With time slipping away, Collinsville picked up the pace on offense, hurrying down court to cut into the Tigers' lead. Basola, who was in for Tracy Wilhoit, took an ill-advised 18-footer, but the rebound went to Bethel who laid it in, making it a 43-40 game.
The Kahoks' zone press nearly forced a turnover at midcourt near the left sideline. Jackson cut off Jefferson who had just turned to sprint down court after receiving an outlet pass. The quick adjustment caused Jefferson to lose his grip on the ball which, in turn, bounced off Jackson, who bobbled it twice but could not gain control. Both players stretched to tip the ball in opposite directions. Jefferson reached it first, tipped it ahead and picked it up on the run on the Herrin side of the floor. Halfway to the basket, Jefferson pulled up and got the ball to Williams, who reset the offense.
The Tigers spread the floor to stall away the game's final minutes, but the Collinsville pressure broke through, batting away a Tidwell-to-Jefferson pass. There was a scramble in the paint with Jefferson and Basola grabbing the ball at the same instant. A jump ball followed under the Herrin basket.
Jefferson tipped it on an arc to a leaping Tidwell, but Bethel was leaping in tandem and the ball skipped off Jefferson's outstretched arms, ricocheting high off the backboard. Bethel stretched the length of his body, but the ball went beyond his reach and bounced off Basola, directly to Ernie Wilhoit, who gave it to Soehlke to bring up court.
Soehlke cut right-to-left across the top of the key, then flashed right down the side of the lane, but as he picked up his dribble for a pass into the paint, he lost the ball. Wilhoit reacted instantly, racing to the corner where he picked up the errant ball and, almost in the same motion, threaded a clever pass to Bethel under the basket along the baseline. Tidwell overran the play on a failed interception attempt and Jefferson abandoned Jackson, sliding across the lane to pick up Bethel.
Bethel powered up and into a flying Jackson, knocking the defender away without a whistle from the referee. A bit off balance, Bethel took the three-foot bank shot but shanked it left off the rim. Beating Tidwell to the rebound, Bethel tried again from close in, lifting a put-back over the front of the rim and softly onto the backboard. The ball bounced lazily off the front of the rim and into Tidwell's grasp.
At that moment, Bethel knew it was over. His shoulders slumped and he lowered his head in dejection and defeat, numbly trailing the play up the court.
Tidwell moved the ball ahead to Williams who fired a three-quarter court pass to Gualdoni, who slammed on the breaks, backed the ball out and returned it to Williams who had just come to the top of the key. Once more, the Tigers spread the floor, this time only seconds from the horn.
Herrin kept the ball moving. A pass went to Box, who suddenly spurted toward the basket, driving hard down the left side of the lane. Bethel, who had just arrived in the paint, dispassionately moved toward Box, turned his body and put a shoulder into the Tigers' floor commander. It was an act of frustration, and the fifth foul on Bethel.
Box calmly sank both free throws with 13 seconds left, making the score 45-40 and sealing the incredible upset.
Going throught the motions at the other end, reserve Bob Vetter grabbed a rebound from a missed Ernie Wilhoit free throw and scored from 10 feet, cutting the final margin to three, 45-42.
"Tonight," beamed a jubilant Earl Lee, "we beat the best team we played all season."
The Kahoks won the battle of the boards in impressive fashion, out-rebounding the Tigers 31-21. Ten of those boards were off their own missed shots, including five offensive grabs in the fourth quarter. But the advantage was canceled by Collinsville committing more than twice as many turnovers as Herrin (13-6) and shooting only 36 percent from the field (17-47), compared to 41 percent (15-37) for the Tigers.
Aside from Bethel and Jackson, who were a combined 12-of-30 for the game (40%), the rest of the Kahoks were a feeble five-of-17 (24%), with the Wilhoit brothers going one-for-12 from the field (eight percent) and nothing-for-four from the line.
Terry Bethel turned in an impressive career-ending performance, worthy of his all-American status, netting 18 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in only three quarters of action. Thom Jackson backed him up with a dozen points and 11 boards. Still, the duo was 20 points below their season average, held in check by a Herrin defense that gave away plenty in size but nothing in heart.
"Any loss is heartbreaking," said Fletcher in post-game comments. "Anytime you are fighting for a state championship and lose, it's hard, even when you lose to a great team. Herrin was the better team tonight. That's all I have to say."
Collinsville's ever-present Tracy Wilhoit held Herrin's John Tidwell to just six points, on only five shots. Jim Gualdoni and Ivan Jefferson combined for 18 points, but Richard Box tipped the scales in the Tigers' favor. Box not only orchestrated Herrin's offensive game plan, but also hit six of 11 shots from the field (55%) and five of seven at the line (71%) for a team-leading 17 points.
"Richard Box was as basketball smart as any player in the state," Lee pointed out. "He was a difference maker in big games. We knew it all year. Everybody else found it out in the championship game."
For Collinsville, it was the lowest point production of the season, and the only loss in 35 games. Half-a-century later, fans statewide still remember the squad as one of the best in Illinois round ball history. That is especially true in Collinsville. "Nobody will let the 1957 team die," said Bethel decades later. "To them there never will be a team like 1957."
Nor will there be many tournaments to rival 1957.
This one had everything. There were three all-American centers in the quarterfinals, two of them fighting it out for the state crown on Saturday night. There were a pair of unbeaten teams, ranked one-two, and headed for an almost certain championship clash. There were a duet of overtime thrillers, seven games decided by three points or less, and four quarterfinal games won by an average of just over four points each. There was also a down-to-the-wire finale representing one of the most monumental upsets in a century of title game surprises.
For Herrin, it was the second upset of an unbeaten team in just over 48 hours, the 31st win in 33 tries--this one for the biggest prize of all.
Lee summarized Herrin's improbable championship run succinctly, "We just went out and played our regular type of game. Our boys hadn't heard that it takes big players to win, so we played and we won and, then, we went home."
Pinckneyville coach "Duster" Thomas never tired of telling the story of being a spectator at the 1957 state tournament. After eight trips to Champaign in 11 years, six in a row from 1951-1956, Thomas, who had just finished his final season as the Panthers' coach, was relegated to the nosebleed section of Huff Gym.
"That's what happens when you lose," he would later say with a laugh. "You get to sit way up in the balcony behind all those posts that block your view. Even my ticket was stamped with the words, 'View Partially Obstructed'."
Of all the views of the '57 finals, however, Thomas' may have been the least obstructed of all.
If there was such a thing as a bandwagon for Herrin believers, outside of the community of Herrin itself, Thomas was the first on board. After Earl Lee's Tigers pummeled his powerhouse for the sectional championship, Thomas predicted matter-of-factly, "I'll take Herrin to go all the way."
Lee, who was the first freshman coach to win state since Bloomington's E. W. McClure in 1916, had been equally vocal himself, saying as he left Herrin for Champaign, "I've got three little girls and we're going to win one game for each of them." Later, when asked by the press, prior to the state quarterfinals, what he thought his team's chances were against the likes of Elgin and Collinsville, Lee insisted, "We didn't come up here to lose. We think we can win the championship and we've come up here to do it."
Considering the bitter rivalry between Herrin and Pinckneyville, as well as the fact that the Panthers were the long-standing postseason nemesis of the Tigers, a state championship, after thumping Thomas' team, appeared almost anticlimactic to players such as John Tidwell. In the end, however, after the season's final horn sounded, even Tidwell became a believer. "This is better than beating Pinckneyville!" he proclaimed. "This was for the state!"
The win for Herrin was a golden moment on the golden anniversary of the state tournament.
To this day, Herrin remains the last Deep South school to win a state championship, not counting class A tournaments. Others have tried, but only two Little Egypt schools have reached the title game since--Cobden's cherished Appleknockers, 50-45 losers to Pekin in the one-class playoffs of 1964, and Carbondale's Terriers, three-time bridesmaids, losing to Pekin in 1967, to Peoria (Manual) by a point in 1994AA, and to underdog Northbrook (Glenbrook North) in 2005AA.
It is perhaps fitting that the '57 finals are frozen in time, forever immortalized as the tournament's golden anniversary affair. The tournament, like the championship game, stands as a reminder to future generations that state championships can turn on scrawny 5-8 point guards; that epic upsets, having happened once, can happen again; and that winning the state tournament really is better than beating Pinckneyville.
Copyright 2005 by Patrick C. Heston