BYU basketball: Looking back at the Cougars' two NIT championship games in the Big Apple
Guard Harold Christensen remembered during one of the games a black player fell to the floor. "Joe Ritchey helped him and they wrote it up in the New York papers. It was something that wasn't done in those days."
After winning the NIT, the team celebrated by going to Mamma Leone's, a famous Italian restaurant in New York City. The 1951 team was inducted into BYU's Hall of Fame in 1976.
In 1966, BYU had a 17-5 record when it headed to the NIT.
"We played three games and we were the No. 1 seed," Witbeck said. BYU beat Temple handily in the first game. In the second game, the Cougars played Army and its young coach, Bobby Knight. Yeah, that Bobby Knight.
"Against Army in the second game we were down three at the half," Witbeck said. "We had been down 13 in the first half. We were an up-tempo, transition team, as smooth as silk. They were a team that liked to hold other teams and slow things down. We played defensive in the second half. We changed our game plan to adjust to Eastern-style of officiating. Army had taken us out of our game. We had to fight fire with fire. The key was the adjustment we made from western basketball to eastern basketball. We had to do it. We were fluid and those teams back there were hanging and pulling on us."
The championship game was against New York University, a school that has since given up athletics.
"They had two or three All-Americans," Witbeck said. "It was a classic game — fastbreak basketball. It was a wonderful win. They had a parade for us in Provo. It was like winning a national championship, which it was. I coached basketball here 20 years and that was the culmination of it. That was what it was all about. You're lucky to get it once in your life. We had our day in the sun in New York City. Fans back there are very knowledgeable. You had better play well or they'd come after you. Watts was revered in New York City. When we came home everyone told us they were pinned to their radios and praying for us while they were listening."
For the championship game, Ezra Taft Benson, who was then the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and would go on to become the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was in attendance, as was BYU President Earnest L. Wilkinson. "(Former Boston Celtics coach) Red Auerback and (former Celtic star) Bob Cousy were there scouting," Witbeck said. "The Who's Who of the basketball world was there."
Schulthess remembered that trip being "the athletic department's first association with Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford, who talked to the team at practice. Cosell commented on our cheerleaders and their light complexion. After it was over, it was pure elation. It was a big event." Fifteen years after BYU's first NIT title, Schulthess remembered people asking him, "What ever happened to Mel Hutchins?"
The Cougars averaged 95.5 points per game for the 1966 season, and they shot 59 percent in the championship game against NYU. After the game, Auerbach said, "BYU simply overpowered them. They outplayed them all over the court."
The 1966 team was inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame in 1980.
Now the 2012-13 Cougars are looking to make a little history of their own this weekend in New York City.
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