Blackburn’s double-OT loss at SLU brings back memories
By Tom Emery
ST. LOUIS (March 29, 2018) – During the glory years of the Blackburn College men’s basketball team in the 1980s, one game stands out to everyone who played in it, over three decades later. Ironically, the Beavers lost that particular game.
But what a game it was. On Nov. 28, 1984, Blackburn pushed Saint Louis University, a formidable NCAA Division I program, to the limit, racing to a big halftime lead and forcing two overtimes before SLU could put away their guests from Carlinville.
In some ways, the game overshadows the other accomplishments of the 1984-85 season, which ended with Blackburn’s second National Small College Athletic Association national title.
“In my mind, it was one of the greatest games ever played by a Blackburn basketball team,” said Bob Staff, who was then in his first season as the Beavers’ head coach. “That loss was a win for all of us and the College, and we were very fortunate to be a part of that night.”
Without a doubt, the 1984-85 Blackburn men’s basketball team enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in the athletic history of the school, and many consider them to be the best men’s basketball team in Blackburn history. That is quite a statement, as the school was invited to eleven NSCAA tournaments in twelve years from 1980-92 and racked up ten conference titles in that span, including five straight Prairie College Conference championships from 1980-85. But the 1984-85 team rightfully stakes its claim.
When Blackburn traveled to St. Louis to take on the Billikens that night, the Beavers were playing their fourth game of the season. SLU, coached by longtime stalwart Rich Grawer, was coming off a 97-64 loss to traditional power Duke at Kiel Auditorium two nights before.
Grawer was in the midst of rebuilding the SLU program and was coming off a 12-16 season. Btu SLU was clearly in the ascent. The 1984-85 edition of the Billikens went 13-15, and for the next six years starting in 1985, Grawer and SLU fashioned a 124-70 record.
The Blackburn matchup on that Wednesday night in November was played at the old West Pine Gym, now the Bauman-Eberhardt Center. An estimated crowd of 700 showed up in the cozy quarters to see their Billikens in their second game of the season.
The Billikens were probably glad that more weren’t on hand. Despite a massive difference in enrollment (SLU is listed today at 13,785, an acclaimed school with a tuition pricetag to match), the school of 500 from Carlinville came ready. The Beavers shot 58 percent in the first half and combined offensive prowess with a formidable defense to race to a 44-30 halftime lead, which made the crowd angry enough to boo the Billikens off the floor.
In a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article the next morning, Grawer conceded that “we deserved to be booed – at halftime, during the game, (and) after the game.” He added that “we played scared,” perhaps because the Billikens realized that Blackburn refused to be taken lightly. Billiken Luther Burden said afterward that “we got outhustled for real.” The Post reported that SLU “allowed itself to be cut to ribbons defensively in the first half” by “a band of courageous Blackburn Beavers” that turned the game into a “chamber of horrors.”
“We played a great first half,” said Staff, who won 110 games in his six seasons as Blackburn head coach. “SLU was taller and quicker, but we were physically stronger and had better passers and shooters. We were very confident that we could pull this off. You could see it in our players’ eyes.”
Blackburn led by sixteen points with fifteen minutes to play and was still ahead 60-49 with 11:49 remaining when SLU finally began to rally. However, the Beavers contended with a new factor – the shot clock, which was being used on an experimental basis that night. College basketball adopted the shot clock the following season.
In addition, the Beavers suffered from questionable officiating as well as a crucial error from the scorer’s table. Cleo Whisenton, one of Blackburn’s top contributors, was fouled out as a result, even though he actually had only four fouls.
“That was a game-changer,” said Staff, still bitter at the memory. “Without Cleo, we had trouble with the press, and did not shoot as well from the outside. Normally, we would have spread the floor and stalled to the end the game.”
Still, Staff notes that Blackburn never got down. “I’m not sure we were ever demoralized,” he recalled. “We were pretty determined to pull this off no matter what obstacles we faced.”
As the game wore on, the crowd began to show its appreciation for the fearless visitors from Carlinville. “The crowd loved the game because neither team was about to quit,” said Staff. “It was a basketball game that resembled a football game with all the contact and intensity. We actually left as the crowd favorite, which just never happens when an opponent comes to your gym.”
Some of the Billikens’ bench players provided a spark, and SLU cut the lead to 80-73 with 2:35 to play. Two missed Billiken free throws were followed by a tip-in to make the score 80-75, and a SLU free throw at 1:16
cut the deficit to four. Blackburn lost an inbounds pass, which resulted in a SLU score and a two-point lead. Two Billiken free throws finally tied the game at 80-80 with 1:03 left, a score which stood up going into overtime.
SLU looked to put the game away with two free throws for an 88-86 lead with 12 seconds left in the extra frame, but Blackburn’s Mike Pauline drove the baseline for a bucket with three seconds to play. He picked up a charging foul after the score, though, putting SLU on the line. With a chance to win, the Billikens missed the front end of a one-and-one, and a second overtime followed.
After 45 minutes of hard-nosed, gusty play, the clock finally struck midnight for the Beavers. They missed their first six shots of the second extra frame, and SLU outscored Blackburn 13-0 in the period to escape – in every sense of the word – with a 101-88 win. The crowd gave the Beavers an ovation as they left the floor.
“The final score was misleading,” said Staff. “Neither team scored for a while, and then SLU got a few quick baskets. We had to foul to get the ball back, and their points came mostly from the free throw line.”
Senior Ike Dodd, in the final season a brilliant Blackburn career that saw him finish as the school’s second all-time leading career scorer with 1,920 points and first in school history with 1,280 rebounds, tossed in 30 points to go along with nine rebounds against SLU. He was a perfect 10-of-10 from the foul line. Rob Harms finished with 15 points, while Whisenton recorded 14 points and Pauline had 11 points with nine boards. The Beavers shot 50 percent for the game.
The St. Louis media heaped praise on Blackburn, labeling the Beavers “a polished team which demonstrated exceptional patience and coaching” and that “they deserved to win this one.” Indeed, the papers described Blackburn as a “long-respected and much-feared power” from the “basketball hotbed of Carlinville, Ill.” SLU was actually one of the few Division I schools that even dared to play the Beavers, as many programs in the region refused to play the little Division III powerhouse from Carlinville.
Blackburn found little solace in the loss immediately after the game, including Staff, who hinted at his displeasure over the suspect officiating in the papers. “On the way home, we were upset, but proud at the same time,” said Staff. “From that time on, we knew we were a very good team that could compete at a Division I level. We really did not have a weakness to fix even after that game. We were confident there was not a Division III team anywhere like us, and we played like that for the rest of the season.”
The Beavers were brilliant in the second semester of the 1984-85 campaign, winning 20 of 21 games to capture another PCC title and earn yet another berth in the NSCAA tournament. There, the Beavers captured their second national title in four seasons to cap off a 23-7 season.
Over thirty years later, Staff and the players look back on the near-miss at SLU with justifiable pride. “I sure wish that game had been televised, or there was ESPN coverage like today. A whole bunch of people would have been able to know Blackburn College.” reflected Staff. “At least for one night.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217- 710-8392 or email@example.com.