I played a small role in the tale of the 1946-47 season as the basketball reporter for the student newspaper, The Tomahawk, which allowed me to travel to Boston on the team bus for all the games at the old Garden. I remember attending one of the first practices of the season at the campus gym. It looked like an overgrown barn — long and narrow with hardly any space to throw the ball in from out-of-bounds. But that's where this young team learned the lessons that would take them to national prominence. They specialized in the "give and go," always looking to find the open man who could take it to the basket for an easy layup.
As if the practice setting weren't enough of a trial, the team also had to overcome the hurdle of extensive travel to and from Boston. Worcester did not have a suitable arena, so Holy Cross played all its home games at the Boston Garden, some 40 miles to the east. This involved a long bus ride, a couple of hours of rest in a hotel and then onto the court for a 7:30 p.m. game. After the game, there was the same tiring ride back to Worcester, with an arrival time of about midnight.
With great hopes for success, the team began its quest for national recognition in the 1946-47 season. Coach Julian, who had run up an impressive 129-71 record at Muhlenburg, realized he had a talented group right from the start. The question was how to employ the players in order to achieve the best result. He decided on what some reporters at the time called "a platoon system" that featured one five-man unit for the first quarter and another unit for the second quarter — with the same units rotated for the third and fourth quarters.
While the unit that started the game — usually, but not always, Kaftan, Curran, Oftring, Mullaney and O'Connell — was called the "first team," in the press, Julian insisted that he had 10 starters and that the second group — Bollinger, McMullan, Haggerty, Cousy and Laska — could play equally well. He also had other competent players — Jim Riley, Charlie Graver and Matt Formon — to fill in when needed.
The system worked well. After a 4-3 start, the Crusaders reeled off 19 victories in a row and gained an NCAA tournament bid.
It was a heady time for the Crusaders. They were going to Madison Square Garden — then the Mecca of college basketball — to play in the College's first postseason tournament and the first for a New England school.
Their opponent was a tough Navy team, coached by the respected Ben Carnavale. The Holy Cross team appeared to have the jitters in the opening minutes and continued to struggle until midway through the half. What got them going was the outside shooting of the co-captain, Mullaney. Nominally the team's playmaker, Mullaney was a dead shot when he was "on." And he was this night, pouring in nine field goals — some with an old fashioned two hand shot — and leading Holy Cross to a convincing 55-47 victory in the opening round. George Kaftan again ruled the boards and scored a hefty 15 points.
Next up was a run-and-shoot City College of New York team that the New York press touted as a potential tournament champion. CCNY took a 23-14 lead well into the first half. But with Kaftan scoring 19 points and rebounding with his usual skill, Holy Cross sprinted ahead, 27-25 by halftime. Kaftan continued his torrid scoring in the second half, for a total of 30, then the second-best in NCAA tournament history. The Crusaders ran off eight straight points in the final minutes to turn what had been a tight game into a rout, with a final score of 60-45. The Crusaders were in the NCAA Championship game.
Once again, they were considered the underdogs, facing a powerful Oklahoma Sooner team with its All-American center, 6-foot, 6-inch Gerald Tucker. The Sooners came to Madison Square Garden after beating Oregon State and Texas in the Western Regionals and looked to be too strong for the comparatively diminutive team from Worcester.
By the end of the first half, Tucker was scoring consistently, and the Sooners led by 31-28. During the halftime break, Julian made the decision that was to lead to victory for the Crusaders. He put bulky Bob Curran, the 6-foot 2-inch forward from Worcester, on the Sooners' star. Curran responded by following Tucker all over the court and putting the clamps on him. Tucker scored only one field goal in the second half. Meanwhile, Kaftan and O'Connell ramped up the offense. They went on a 9-2 run to open the second half and never trailed after that — with Kaftan rebounding and scoring inside while O'Connell directed the offense with slick passing and outside shooting.
With their main scoring threat muffled, the Sooners couldn't keep pace with the quicker Crusaders who finally ran out the clock and carried off the national championship, 58-47. Kaftan again led the Holy Cross scorers with 18 points. O'Connell had his best game of the tournament, with 16 points. Hard working forward Frank Oftring also scored in double figures with 14. And lanky forward Bob McMullan chipped in with eight while supporting Kaftan off the boards. Kaftan's 63 points over three games for a 21-point average earned him the tournament's "Most Valuable Player" award.
The Little Team that Could, continued >>