St. Louis Award

When St. Louis University reached the final of the 1948 National Invitational Tournament (NIT), many people around the country were saying, “St. Louis University? Never heard of them.” But SLU did have a team, and a pretty darn good one, too. And although a lot of other people hadn’t heard of them and didn’t give them much of a chance to win the NIT, they felt they could go into Madison Square Garden and beat New York University. Back then, the NIT was huge. It was as big, if not bigger, than the NCAA Tourney.

Until 1946 or ’47, St. Louis had never done much in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). They were always on a lower rung than Oklahoma A&M and Midwest powers Kansas and Indiana. SLU_48That finally changed in 1947, when they did well in the NIT. The crowd at Madison Square Garden really liked SLU because they had a fast-break team. Their coach, Eddie Hickey, loved to play fast-break basketball. They’d get the ball and just start running. The Garden fans loved the Billikens because with that style, they never knew what was going to happen on the court.

By 1948, SLU had finally arrived. They finished behind Oklahoma A&M in the MVC race, but entered the NIT with only three losses. They played Bowling Green in the first game of the tournament. Bowling Green had Charlie Share, a big 7-foot center who went on to play several seasons in the NBA with the St. Louis Hawks. SLU ended up beating Share and Bowling Green, then beat Western Kentucky. That put them into the final. NYU was good and had Dolph Schayes, who had amazing skills.

Most people looked at NYU’s great reputation and the fact the game was being played in New York and figured SLU was the underdog. Plus, the Violets had won 19 straight games heading into the final. But the Billikens had beaten Holy Cross and Bob Cousy and had beaten Yale. The Billiken players knew that they could play with anyone, even if everyone across the nation was asking, “What’s a Billiken?” In the first half, SLU proved it could play with NYU. It was a close game. But in the second half, SLU just took control. SLU was the type of team that if they got a lead, it was difficult to catch them because they would keep running. In the second half, the Billikens were up by double digits most of the way. They didn’t want to coast, though. When there was only five minutes left in the game, everyone’s saying, “Oh, SLU has the game locked up now.” But that’s not how you look at it as a player. You never know what’s going to happen; you keep going and playing hard. SLU ended up winning, 66-52. Ed Macauley finished with 24 points and was named the tournament Most Valuable Player. Schayes was held to eight points.

SLU played in some other memorable games. In the very next season, 1949, they met Kentucky early in the season at the Sugar Bowl in Texas. Back in those days, prior to the football game, they would hold a basketball tournament. The Billikens beat Holy Cross and Cousy, and Kentucky beat Tulane.

But the 1948 NIT final will never be forgotten. That game brought a lot of recognition for the school and the city.