Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 23, 1957: Wilt's lost opportunity

KANSAS CITY - It should have been a classic college basketball game. The Kansas Jayhawks, led by the often-unstoppable Wilt Chamberlain, were up against top ranked North Carolina for the national championship. Everything pointed to this game being a college basketball classic, and for 30 minutes, it was. And while it's still remembered as one of the more memorable college basketball games ever played, it could have been so much more.

Led by all-American Lennie Rosenbluth, the Tar Heels took a 29-22 lead at halftime against Kansas, but Chamberlain started leading the Jayhawks back. In fact, it took Kansas only 3:20 to take the lead, going ahead 36-35. Kansas had outscored North Carolina 14-6 in only 3:20, a great display of scoring prowess.

And then, the game slowed down. Kansas was ahead 40-37 with 10:00 left in the game when both teams decided to start stalling. In the days before the shot clock, stalling was a perfectly legal strategy, and it was used often in close games, as coaches often held the ball for a final possession. And so, what had been a great, tight, often tense game was ruined by two coaches stalling.

From the 10:00 mark to the 5:00 mark, neither team attempted a shot. They finally started to pick up the play with 5:00 left, but not by much, and the game was tied 46-46 after regulation. From there, it looked like Kansas would have the advantage, as they still had Wilt, and North Carolina's great Rosenbluth had fouled out with 20 points.

Instead, both teams continued their stalling ways. Each team scored just one basket in the first overtime and didn't score at all in the second. It was 48-48 entering the third overtime when the two teams finally started to try scoring again. And once they did, the game returned to its legendary status.

A pair of free-throws put Kansas up 53-52 with :20 left in the third overtime. North Carolina's Tommy Kearns tried for a game-winning basket but had his shot blocked by Chamberlain. However, Chamberlain was called for the foul, putting Kearns on the line. Kearns made both free throws to give the Tar Heels a 54-53 lead with six seconds left. From there, there was little doubt what Kansas would try to do. As the Jayhawks tried to get the pass in to Chamberlain for a game-winning shot, Kearns tipped the pass away, clinching the national title for North Carolina.

As Wilt got older and turned into the most dominant force in basketball, he considered the 1957 national championship game to be his biggest failure as an athlete. For their part, the Kansas fans never blamed him for losing that game. It's probably best that they didn't. If their coach had just let the team play instead of ordering the stalling tactic, perhaps there wouldn't have been a reason for Wilt to feel shame.

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