Thursday, January 23, 2014

March and December 1961 - Utah vs. Arizona State

When I think of Arizona State basketball, I think of Ned Wulk. He coached the Sun Devils from before the WAC was formed until after ASU joined the Pac-10. He was the only coach I ever faced in my 21 games against ASU.

His teams always played fast and were almost always tough. The first time we met was in the Elite Eight round of the 1961 NCAA Tournament in Portland. They had a trio of scorers led by an elusive 5'8" point guard named Larry Armstrong. He was averaging right around 20 ppg, but earned 27 against us. Their other scorers, Jerry Hahn and Ollie Payne, combined for another 26. Fortunately, our boys were at the top of their game; Billy McGill, Jim Rhead and Rich Ruffell combined for 72 points and 36 rebounds. We held a big first half lead and cruised to an 8-point win and a trip to the Final Four in Kansas City.

The following season, we put the Sun Devils on our non-conference schedule twice -- first in Tempe, and then in Salt Lake three weeks later. They were virtually the same team they were the year before -- led again by the trio of Armstrong, Hahn and Payne. But this time they were anxious for revenge. I, frankly, wasn't very optimistic we could win in Tempe, and even less so when Billy McGill picked up four fouls in the first half. Yet somehow we persevered and gave ourselves a chance to win it in the end. At the final second, McGill lobbed an in-bounds ally-oop pass to Ed Rowe for the tie, but it was just out of his grasp. ASU got its revenge by the score of 78-76. Armstrong led the way with 22 points.

That set up the rubber match three weeks later at the Nielsen Field House. By then, the Sun Devils had climbed to #10 in the national polls. We were so familiar with ASU by that time, and they with us; there was no point in trying to out-smart each other. Instead, we just tried to out-run each other.

The game was fast-paced and neck-and-neck. Each team scored in bunches, but neither could pull away. We shot 50% and ASU shot 47%. McGill had 28 points by halftime, yet we trailed by two points. It wasn't until there were nine minutes left when we had a bit of a lead and could slow down the pace. Five minutes later, we began to freeze the ball and held out for the 88-80 victory. McGill finished with 47 points, but the Sun Devils got theirs as well: Payne had 24, Armstrong had 22 and Hahn had 20 (off 9-for-11 shooting).

And with that, the Utah-Arizona State rivalry had begun. The next season we started playing each other as members of the newly-formed WAC. Coach Wulk and I had many great duels over the years -- like the time Mike Newlin scored 32 points against Seabern Hill's 31 points to lead us to a 93-92 come-from-behind victory in Tempe. But that's another story for another day.

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