This is the third in a new series exclusive to White & Blue Review in which we’ll go back and look at each of the NCAA Tournament teams in Creighton Basketball history. Today we continue the series with Part III on the 1973-74 squad; if you missed the first chapter, catch up on Part I and Part II.
Marquette, rated #5 in the UPI poll and #6 by the AP, had won 99 of their previous 100 games at Milwaukee Arena, and just four nights before the Jays came for a visit, they beat bitter in-state rival Wisconsin on a 17-foot jumper at the buzzer by Maurice Lucas. It’s the shot you often see on highlight reel packages of great all-time finishes, as much for the shot itself as for what happened immediately after: head coach Al McGuire jumped up on top of the scorer’s table to lead the fans in cheering.
The Warriors had lost just once in 100 tries at home, were coming off an emotional win, and were a legit top five team with a record of 18-2. Despite being ranked #18 in the same UPI poll, very few gave Creighton any chance of winning — but assistant coach Tom Apke was living proof of the Jays beating a similarly daunting Warriors squad, a game he reminisced about in the World-Herald a couple of days before the ’74 tilt:
It was in 1965. Apke was captain of the Creighton team and Al McGuire was finishing his first season as Marquette coach.
“That’s when he ‘invented’ putting in his whole second string,” Apke said of a McGuire coaching trick. “They were called Scrambled Eggs,” Tom said, because the reserves trade was to press.
But Apke and the rest of the Bluejays scrambled Marquette’s plans with a 78-68 win. “We kind of had the game under control the the whole way, as I recall,” Apke said Thursday.
Since that win in ’65, the Warriors had won six straight against Creighton. Two years prior, in their last trip to Milwaukee, the Jays led 37-33 at the half only to see the Warriors rally for a 70-61 win. As it had been that year, the keys to winning this one were twofold: solve their vicious press, and control the defensive glass.
And if the odds were 99-to-1, given the Warriors winning 99 of their previous 100 home games, the odds increased tenfold just six minutes in when they raced out to a 14-2 lead. Pressing from the moment the ball was tipped, the Warriors’ Lloyd Walton scored four buckets and made two free throws before the first timeout; combined with a bucket apiece from Maurice Lewis and Marcus Washington, at the 14:20 mark of the half, it was already 14-2.
One of the drawbacks to Marquette’s non-stop running, pressuring, trapping, collapsing defense was that depending on the officiating crew, it could lead to a ton of fouls being called. Fortunately for Creighton, one of those crews was working that night, and so despite Marquette making 15 baskets in the first half to Creighton’s 9, the score was tied 32-32 at the break. The Jays had made 14-16 free throws, while the Warriors made 2-2. As you can imagine, the feisty Al McGuire wasn’t too pleased about that discrepancy, but that just added to the atmosphere.
“I think that poise can’t be emphasized enough on the part of these kids,” Sutton noted after the game. Indeed, it would have been understandable if things had continued snowballing against them once they were behind 14-2 and the partisan crowd was frenzied. But the veteran Jays had no quit in them, stuck to the game plan despite the deficit, and fought to tie the game by half.
With 15:36 to play in the game, the Jays tied the game at 40 on a basket by Gene Harmon, and moments later, when Marcus Washington was whistled for a technical foul, he sank the resulting free throw to put Creighton up 41-40. Bobik hit an outside shot to make it 43-40, Brookins made a shot from the left baseline to make it 45-40, and the Jays had built a lead they would not surrender.
After the game, Al McGuire was conciliatory. “They’re a better ball club than we are. Well disciplined, well coached. I think that if we played ‘em five times, we’d beat them once.” As for the Creighton side, they let out some much-deserved bravado.
Eddie Sutton told reporters, “I really felt we would win this basketball game.” Ralph Bobik went a bit further, saying “We knew we were going to beat them.” Ted Wuebben added, “This win is the greatest thing in the world.” Charles Butler, never shy with words, commented “All season long, we’ve been living for this game. It’s just like a dream.” Even Doug Brookins, normally reserved when speaking with the media, chimed in. “We weren’t about to let them get us. We’ve been down a long, hard road. We’re the best-poised team around.”
First the Magic Kingdom, Then Tropical Paradise
Eddie Sutton was worried that his 18th ranked Jays would suffer from an emotional let-down the following Monday when St. John’s of Minnesota came to Omaha. “We felt we might come out tonight and still be thinking about Marquette,” Sutton noted later. But he needn’t have worried. The Jays blasted out to a 47-24 lead by halftime, and put the game in cruise control with the reserves most of the rest of the way, and won 81-43.
The next day, they broke into the AP Poll for the first time in school history, earning the #17 spot in the poll, and moved up the #17 in the UPI poll, too. And by the time they played their next game a week later, they were #15 in both polls. That next game came in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, as the Jays played at Cal-Irvine in Anaheim. It was another blowout, 83-52, and Gene Harmon’s 22 points moved him into seventh place on the all-time scoring list.
At 20-4, they now moved on to Hawaii, where they’d play a two-game series against the Rainbow Warriors, games that would be the school’s first regular-season contests outside of the continental USA. Hawaii was having a magnificent season, themselves, with a 17-4 record and a #20 ranking in the UPI poll. In front of a capacity crowd, and a large television audience on the islands estimated at 200,000, Creighton won game one 63-59.
The Jays 10th straight win came despite being out-rebounded 37-24, a fact Sutton lamented after the game. “It’s discouraging. Make no mistake, we won because of our hot shooting.” Gene Harmon led the way with 19 points, Charles Butler contributed 16 and Ted Wuebben and Ralph Bobik added 10 each.
The second game, played the next night, went the other way with the host Rainbows winning 61-60. Creighton trailed 59-50 with 4:35 to play, but a 9-2 run over the next three minutes cut the deficit to 61-59. Hawaii stalled to kill most of the final 1:41, and finally with 11 seconds left, Creighton fouled them to force free throws. They missed the front end of the one-and-one, and after Doug Brookins secured the rebound, he was fouled.
Hawaii’s bench erupted, and was whistled for a technical foul. Brookins, who was having a sensational night with 20 points, missed the front end of his one-and-one. Gene Harmon made the technical foul free throw to make it 61-60, and then they called timeout to set up a final play. Charles Butler’s shot was just wide, and Hawaii escaped.
“Overall, of course, we have to be satisfied with this split,” Sutton correctly noted after the game. “To win even one from Hawaii out here is quite an accomplishment. It is just disappointing to have come that close to winning two.”
Before returning home, the Jays played an exhibition game against the Super Bees, a naval Sea Bee team of service all-stars, on Monday. While it didn’t count in the standings, it gave them one more contest to show for their Hawaiian excursion, and it allowed their alumni on the islands one more chance to see them live.
Accepting an NCAA Tourney Bid
In 1974, the NCAA postseason was a very different beast than it is today. 16 conference champions made the NCAA tourney automatically, and the runner-ups in each league went to the NIT. The best 9 independent teams were also invited to the NCAA’s as at-large entrants, making up the field of 25. The the top four conference winners and the top four independents received byes into the second round; everyone else had to play an extra game. Creighton was fifth on the pecking order, by most accounts, unfortunately.
The day before their final regular season game, Creighton accepted a bid to play in the NCAA Tourney, and would be matched up against the Southwest Conference champion — either Texas, Texas Tech or SMU. Creighton sent advance scouts to both the Texas vs Baylor and Texas Tech vs SMU games, not knowing who they would be playing until the result of those games was final.
Meanwhile, in their own final regular season game, Creighton welcomed 14th (AP) ranked South Carolina to the Civic, a team that shared the #16 rank in the UPI poll with the Jays. It would be Senior Night for the six seniors, who were presented with silver mugs — the traditional gift in those days — in a pre-game ceremony. A crowd of 10,216 came out to show their appreciation, the largest crowd in Creighton history at that time and the largest crowd to ever watch a basketball game anywhere in the state of Nebraska at the time.
What they saw was a hot-shooting Gamecocks team who made 57% of their field goals for the game, keeping Creighton at arms length all night. They held on for a 78-69 win that dropped Creighton to 21-6 entering the NCAA Tourney, and on a two-game losing streak. However, South Carolina coach Frank McGuire, winner of three national championships, was sufficiently impressed that he asked Eddie Sutton if he could speak to the Jays in the locker room afterward, and he delivered a quiet Creighton locker room the following message: “I’m sure you can beat those Texas teams.”
A Hot Night in Texas … In More Ways Than One
Creighton’s first round matchup: the 12-14 Texas Longhorns, who despite their mediocre overall record, had gone 11-3 in the SWC to secure the NCAA bid. They’d started the season 0-9, and were 1-11 before conference play started. It was difficult to figure, as they had no significant injuries and no real strategic changes between the team who started so poorly and the one that ended so hot. Led by two all-SWC players, Larry Robinson and Harry Larribee, the latter the best guard in the southwest, the Longhorns preferred an up-tempo style, played both zone and man-to-man defense, and were extremely aggressive.
Eddie Sutton told the media that after reviewing scouting reports on the Longhorns, he’d decided against putting in any new schemes for the game. “We just tried to review some things that we’ve been doing all season long, and to polish the offense. I think we can score enough points to win. It’s just a matter of whether we can curtail their attack.”
The game would be played at the brand new North Texas State arena in Denton, Texas, and was televised on KETV — the tournament was not nationally televised in those days, but the local Omaha ABC affiliate arranged for coverage of the game. A win would move Creighton into the regional semifinals, where Kansas awaited, and would give them 22 wins to tie the most in school history, a record owned at the time by the 1964 team.
The NTSU Coliseum was unseasonably warm, and Eddie Sutton thought he could wear Texas down by utilizing his bench early because the Longhorns were not a deep team. It initially backfired, as Texas took the early lead with their first unit playing against a mix of Creighton starters and reserves, but Sutton was correct in his assertion that the heat would play a role. “The heat really bothered me,” Gene Harmon admitted later. “I felt completely drained.”
Though the score was tied 35-35 at halftime, that was deceiving: Creighton fell behind several times and rallied each time to tie, but never took the lead. With just over 12 minutes to play, they were down eight when Sutton called timeout; in that huddle, he made the key tactical decision of the game. “We dominated them the last 10 or 12 minutes, and the thing that started it was when we switched from the zone back to the man-to-man,” Sutton recalled. “We gained the momentum.”
A mini run directly following the timeout cut the deficit to 57-55, and then Creighton began a scintillating 13-0 run as they steamrolled over the Longhorns. It started with Charles Butler snagging a defensive rebound and finding Ted Wuebben on an outlet pass for a fastbreak bucket, tying the score at 57-all. Wuebben then stole the ball from all-SWC forward Larry Robinson, and hit the streaking Doug Brookins for another fast break bucket to give Creighton the 59-57 lead.
“It took the pressure off of us,” Wuebben said after the game. “We weren’t behind anymore.” The pressure was now squarely on Texas, and they wilted in the heat, no pun intended.
Butler hit a jumper to go up 61-57, and that forced Texas to call timeout in an effort to regroup. The estimated 200 Creighton fans in attendance cheered loudly, as the partisan Texas crowd of 6,750 mostly sat in stunned silence. Coming out of the timeout, Texas made a defensive switch themselves, going from a zone to a man-to-man. It had the opposite effect that Creighton’s similar switch had — the Jays destroyed the man-to-man defense as the strategy blew up in Texas coach Leon Black’s face.
Over the next three minutes, Creighton scored five unanswered buckets and made two free throws, and just like that, it was 68-57 with 3:22 to go. Free throws down the stretch sealed the 77-61 victory, and the Creighton fans chanted “We Want Kansas!”, in reference to their next opponent.
The Greatest Season Comes to an End
“We’re not going to lose to another Big Eight team,” Ralph Bobik promised heading into their Midwest Regional semifinal against Kansas. Gene Harmon agreed. “We had a lot of injuries against Oklahoma and Colorado, and we just didn’t play very well.”
Eddie Sutton, showing his diplomatic side (and perhaps, the wisdom of years) disagreed, and was concerned about their next opponent. As he read over the scouting report during a layover in the Kansas City airport en route to Omaha, he said to a reporter, “Kansas U looked pretty good, eh?”
Mike Caruso, the former Creighton standout who scouted the Jayhawks for his alma mater, nodded. “Awesome is a better word.” Caruso had been in attendance as Kansas thoroughly destroyed Missouri, 112-76, on the final Saturday of the season.
Of immediate concern, however, was the health of Ted Wuebben, their leading rebounder. On the Monday before the game, he was laid up in traction at Methodist Hospital, receiving treatment for back spasms. Though he assured everyone he would be able to play, Sutton was scheming under the assumption he would be without the services of his big man. In practice that week, Doug Brookins shifted to forward from center, and sixth-man Mike Heck joined the first team at center.
As Thursday inched closer, the chances of Wuebben playing increased slightly, though Sutton wasn’t overly optimistic. “I don’t want to rule him out of the contest completely because Ted is such a great competitor, but he definitely won’t start.”
Without Wuebben, the task of controlling the glass — likely the key to an upset — fell to Doug Brookins, Gene Harmon and Mike Heck, all capable rebounders but none as consistent as Wuebben. As it turned out, Wuebben wound up playing significant minutes off the bench, though he was largely ineffective, scoring six points and grabbing three boards before fouling out.
Still, the game was tight throughout, and the Jays actually led 33-30 at halftime behind 59.3% shooting. Brookins was 5-10 in the opening half, and Harmon was 4-6. Creighton held on to the lead until the 13:16 mark of the second half, when Kansas’ Rick Suttle banked home a jumper to give them a 41-40 lead. Then the Jays stormed back out front on buckets by Tom Anderson and Wuebben, going up 46-43. A Ralph Bobik runner made it 48-45 with 8:08 to go, and two Bobik field goals with 7:14 left made it 50-45. An 8-2 Kansas run gave them a 53-52 lead with 1:21 to go, before Gene Harmon gave the Jays their last lead, 54-53, on a jumper from the left wing.
KU’s Tommie Smith answered with a jumper of his own to make it 55-54, and Eddie Sutton called timeout to draw up a play. Intended for Gene Harmon, they got him the look they wanted … and he missed. “I was waiting for (Kansas’) Rick Suttle to come out on me and try to get the ball in to Doug Brookins,” Harmon explained. “I just wasn’t concentrating on the hoop.” Sutton defended his senior. “The shot we got from Harmon at the end was a very good shot. It was the shot we wanted.”
But Creighton wasn’t ready to concede defeat just yet. With 22 seconds left, Brookins tied up Kansas’ Roger Morningstar and forced a jump ball. KU controlled the tip, though, and successfully played keep away to avoid being fouled, killing the clock and the Jays season.
Their seniors were distraught after the game. Ralph Bobik told the World-Herald, “Our turnovers beat us. We beat ourselves.” Gene Harmon was even more defiant, telling the paper’s Don Lee, “We thought we were the best team. The best team didn’t win tonight, but that’s athletics.”
The Jays would play one more game, the Consolation Game in the Midwest Regional, and the 80-71 win over Louisville made them the winningest team in school history at 23-7, besting the mark of 22-7 by the 1964 team.
Eddie Sutton, who unbeknownst to anyone had just coached his final game at Creighton, reflected back on the team’s run. “We’ve had some great times together. I’m not sure any coach ever has been blessed with boys the caliber of this team. The senior class had the best freshman record (17-2) the school ever had. And now, the very best varsity mark. It was a little misty-eyed after the game.”
Gene Harmon, the Schuyler, Nebraska native who had been so defiant in the moments after the Kansas loss, was more philosophical following this one. “The biggest thing was proving the fact that a small town boy can make it. Hopefully, I’ve been something of an inspiration to small-town kids in Nebraska. It’s most gratifying to be on the greatest team in Creighton history.”
A few weeks later, Sutton left Creighton to take over a struggling Arkansas program, and his top assistant, Tom Apke, was promoted to head coach. The Bluejays didn’t miss a beat, making the NCAA Tournament the very next season.
Next week, WBR’s Great Teams looks back at the 1974-75 team, the first of the Tom Apke Era.