Feb. 11, 2011
MADISON, Wis. -- UW basketball coach John Erickson had a bad feeling about his team after watching his players sleep-walk through a practice the night before the game.
Erickson had every right to be concerned because the next day – March 3, 1962 – the Badgers were facing No. 1-ranked Ohio State at the Field House.
The Buckeyes were not only 22-0 on the season, but they had won 27 straight Big Ten games and 47 consecutive regular-season games.
Ohio State was led by Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek, who had combined to win 54 of their last 55, including a 75-55 decision over Cal in the 1960 title game.
Coach Fred Taylor’s club was ‘’loaded for bear” and Bearcats. The only loss was in double-overtime to Cincinnati in the 1961 national championship game.
Two months earlier, the Cincinnati Bearcats had overwhelmed the Badgers by 30 points in the ECAC Holiday Festival Tournament in New York City.
That took some of the luster off how well Wisconsin had played in its first two games of that December tourney by upsetting Providence and Dayton.
“That was important because it established the fact that we were a good team,” said Erickson, who was nonetheless puzzled by that Friday practice.
“I went home that night, the night before the Ohio State game,” Erickson recalled, “and I told my wife (Polly), ‘Boy, I think we’re going to get crushed tomorrow. I can’t get this team ready. We’re just not sharp right now.’
“And you had to be sharp to play Ohio State.”
The Buckeyes were built around Lucas and Havlicek but they also had a nice mix of complimentary players like Mel Nowell and Bob Knight.
Nowell turned out be a much better player than Knight.
Knight turned out to be a much better coach than most.
“Bobby wasn’t a scorer at all,” Erickson said. “He was a rugged kid who would come in and foul quite a bit. He was definitely tough on defense.”
Erickson knew that the Badgers would have to play much better defense if they hoped to compete with the Buckeyes, who were leading the nation in field goal shooting percentage (.507). That was one thing that had to happen.
Many other things had to fall into place, too.
Like the falling snow that blanketed the campus that day.
“When I got to the Field House, I went into our dingy dressing room,” Erickson said, “and Mike O’Melia was going around pounding guys on the chest, ‘We’re going to beat these guys today, we’re going to beat these guys today.’
“I said to my assistant, Johnny Orr, ‘O’Melia’s really revved up. Look at what he’s doing.’ That was the first sign that I felt there was something in the air.”
The late Mike O’Melia was a 5-foot-10 sophomore guard from Rhinelander.
“I thought of all the nights I drove up on ice and snow to Rhinelander to recruit this kid – oh, he was good,” Erickson said. “He had a fighter’s heart. He wasn’t a loud kid at all, not even on the floor. But he played so hard.
“I think he weighed only about 150 pounds. He wasn’t a great scorer. But he’d score for us every once in awhile. And he’d get fouled a lot. Plus, he was a great defensive player. Our guys just loved him. He was a tremendous leader.”
Although Erickson was impressed by the way O’Melia pumped up his UW teammates before the game, he admitted, “That doesn’t always work, and we weren’t just playing another team. We were playing a great team.”
But when Erickson stepped on the floor before introductions, he could feel the “electricity” in the air. The Field House was buzzing with anticipation.
“I don’t think they were revved up for a Wisconsin victory that day,” Erickson said, “as much as the crowd wanted to see this great Ohio State team because it was going to be their last appearance in Madison.”
Lucas and Havlicek were seniors.
“During the introduction, they’d announce the starters for the visiting team and they’d each go out to the free throw line individually,” Erickson said. “I remember our Wisconsin crowd gave Lucas and Havlicek a standing ovation.”
Six years ago, I visited with O’Melia, who was then living in Phoenix and serving as a superior court judge. I asked him what he thought about the home crowd’s reaction? “It was out of respect and that kind of impressed me,” he said.
The Badgers were also deserving of respect. Coming into the Ohio State game, they were 9-3 in the Big Ten. “We thought as a team that we could beat just about anybody,” said O’Melia, who passed away in January of 2006.
To this day, Pat Richter, who was a backup center on that ’62 team, has fond memories of O’Melia. “He was as good of a point guard as you’re going to find,” said Richter, the former All-American receiver and UW athletic director.
“I remember the last time I watched film of that Ohio State game. They have it archived and you ought to take a look at it to see how outstanding Mike O’Melia was in controlling the tempo of the game and everything else.”
Erickson knew what he wanted to accomplish against the Buckeyes.
O’Melia was the conductor.
“We had planned to play our game,” he said. “You have to play the best that you can but you also have to try and take something away from the other team that they do well. But you can’t make too many changes. This was March.
“We pressed them like we always did – all over the floor. I remember O’Melia got stuck with Havlicek in the backcourt and Havlicek was twice as big, but he had trouble getting around Mike.”
It didn’t take long for the Badgers to establish their turf.
“Something happened early in the game that changed the whole game,” Erickson said. “We had a set play off free throws. Lucas was shooting and he made it and my guy underneath grabbed the ball and inbounded it quickly.
“We had Tom Gwyn flying down the middle of the court. Tom was about 6-5 or 6-6 and he could really run and jump. If we caught the free throw shooter sleeping a little bit, Gwyn would go right by him.
“That’s what happened to Lucas who recognized what was happening too late. We got the ball to Gwyn on two passes and he took one dribble at the free throw line and soared into the air and stuffed it. I had never seen him do that.
“Let me tell you, I thought the crowd in the third deck was going to fall over the railing. Everybody was standing and from that moment, we caught fire.”
Defensively, the Badgers limited the Buckeyes to 24 field goals on 75 attempts (.320), well below their average. In particular, Ken Siebel, a 6-4 junior out of Rock Falls, Ill., shut down Havlicek, who made only 3-of-15 shots.
Offensively, the Badgers were clicking. Don Hearden, a Kimberly sophomore, had 29 points, and Siebel added 22. “It’s really funny but I don’t ever remember playing where you didn’t think you had a chance to win,” Siebel said.
That positive mindset carried the Badgers against the Buckeyes.
“During the game, it’s one of those things where you feel like you’re on,” Richter said, “and no matter what they did, we seemed to have an answer for them. It was just one of those days where you know that you have their number. It’s not so much that Ohio State played poorly, either. We just played so well.”
In the closing minutes of the game, Taylor pulled Lucas and Havlicek.
“Of course, I was still nervous and we were ahead by about 13,” Erickson said. “As they were going out of the game, instead of going to their bench, Lucas and Havlicek came over to our bench and they each shook hands with me.
“They said, ‘Coach, you deserved to win. Your team played a great game. Congratulations.’ I was stunned. I haven’t seen something like that happen since.”
The crowd stormed the floor at the final buzzer and hoisted Siebel and O’Melia on their shoulders to celebrate the UW’s improbable 86-67 win, the first and only time in school history the Badgers have knocked off a No. 1-ranked team.
“I can still see Mike O’Melia throwing the ball to the top of the Field House as the final seconds ran down,” Erickson said. “I can also still see a guy catching the ball when it came down and running for the exit.”
Rumor has it that it was a football player who wanted the souvenir. UW athletic director Ivy Williamson got a name and placed a call to a fraternity house.
“The kid had until noon to return the ball, or he was going to lose his scholarship,” Erickson said. “I have the ball in my office at home.”
What made that win over Ohio State even more special was the fact that the Badgers had to compensate for the loss of Ron Jackson, who was academically ineligible for the second semester.
“How in the world could we play Ohio State and have any chance to beat them without our best player?” posed Erickson, noting Gwyn, Tom Hughbanks and Jack Brens all contributed, much to the delight of the home crowd.
The official attendance was 13,545.
“I’ve traveled around the country,” said Erickson, “and I bet I’ve run into over 400,000 people who said they were at that Field House that day.”
For historical perspective, Bo Ryan was 14, JFK was the President, and U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was spilling his guts to a Senate committee on how his reconnaissance plane went down in the heart of Russia.
Rock Hudson and Doris Day were starring in “Lover Come Back” at the Orpheum and Jerry Lewis was playing “The Errand Boy” in Middleton.
March 3, 1962.
In a twist of irony, Erickson was back on the UW campus last October for Field House Madness, which just happened to coincide with the Badgers knocking off the No. 1-ranked Buckeyes at Camp Randall Stadium later that afternoon.
Feb. 12, 2011.
Guess who’s coming back to Madtown ranked No. 1 in the country?
“Bo and I are good friends, I email him all the time,” Erickson said. “Ohio State is very good. The big guy (Jared Sullinger) in the middle is going to give us some problems. But I watched Ohio State play Michigan and I thought to myself, ‘I believe Wisconsin can beat them.’ I just have that hunch.”