On March 21, 1959 in Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky in one of the more closely battled finals the California Golden Bears edged the West Virginia Mountaineers 71-70.
The Final Four featured two of the greatest college players of their time and maybe of all time with Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson and West Virginia’s Jerry West and it was with anticipation that fans waited for the two teams to meet in the final but California had other plans as they defeated Cincinnati 64-58 in the semifinal game.
West had poured in 38 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in West Virginia’s win over Louisville and California had held Robertson to five of sixteen shooting for 19 points but the Big O pulled down 19 rebounds in the losing cause.
In the final it would be offense against defense as California was coached by Pete Newell a defensive specialist who would influence many later coaches including later Indiana coach Bobby Knight.
Newell is credited with innovations like the reverse-action offense which can adjust to either a man to man or zone defense and he was one of the best teachers of the game of basketball.
Twenty three teams were in the tournament and the final was played the day after the semifinal but there wasn’t the media attention then as there is today.
California led at halftime and 71-70 with just a few seconds left in the game. The Mountaineers had the ball and one last long shot by West but the ball didn’t go in and California won its only NCAA title.
West Virginia took an early ten point lead in the first half but the Golden Bears rallied to lead by six at halftime. They extended their lead to thirteen points in the second half helped in part when Jerry West picked up his third foul but the Mounteneers roared back to come within one point but could not get the lead as time ran out and California won 71-70.
West got the MVP and went on to the Lakers where he would have a Hall of Fame career and finally with Elgin Baylor and Wilt chamberlain would win a title in 1972.
West Virginia’s coach Fred Schaus was an executive with that team.
The Bears 6’ 10” Darrall Imhoff would also go to play in the NBA for the Knicks, Lakers and Cincinnati Royals.
For West Virginia it was mostly West as he had 28 points and eleven rebounds and was helped by Willie Akers with ten points and six rebounds and Robert Cloussen who had ten points and four rebounds.
California had a more balanced attack with Danny Fitzpatrick leading in scoring with 20 points, followed by Bob Dalton with 15 and Darrall Imhoff with ten points and 9 rebounds and Bill McClintock with eight points and ten rebounds.
Neither West Virginia nor California would ever return to the NCAA final again.
Ron Griffitts a contributing columnist for the Daily Advocate