Roughly 90 years ago, the first-ever men’s NCAA’s March Madness tournament took place on March 27, 1939, when the Oregon Webfoots (now the Ducks) took on the Ohio State Buckeyes to decide the inaugural champion of college basketball. Thanks in part to dominant play throughout the tournament by Oregon’s well-tenured side of veteran college athletes, upstart head coach “Young” Howard Hobson had little to no trouble maneuvering through the eight-team tournament field en route to their first, and the only national title in school history. While both schools are still well-respected today, their path to the first finals was much easier than that of the Saint Peter’s Peacocks and their improbable run this year.
Oregon kicked off their tournament run with a 15-point victory over the Texas Longhorns in the opening round. They followed this up with an even more impressive victory, defeating the Oklahoma Sooners by a score of 55-37. Forward John H. Dick served as the de facto first option throughout the competition, with his best performance of the tourney coming in the championship game against the Buckeyes, where he scored fifteen points to lead the Ducks to victory.
Ohio State’s path to finals was moderately similar to that of Oregon’s, as they dispatched Wake Forest 64-52 in the opening round. This win set them up with a date against the Villanova Wildcats for a shot at the National Championship game. Villanova didn’t stand a chance, and the Buckeyes inevitably steamrolled them 53-36 to reach the final. Head coach Harold Olsen had actually been the one to pitch the idea of a National Championship and subsequent tournament, so his presence in the final itself was certainly a welcome one. Captain and guard Jimmy Hull led his team alongside fellow guard Richard “Dick” Boughner, who picked up the slack on the defensive end of the court. Boughner’s steal against Minnesota in a play-in game ensured their top spot in the Big Ten conference.
The nation eagerly awaited the tip-off in Evanston, Illinois. Even though it was a highly anticipated game, the Patten Gymnasium where the game was held had a seating capacity of 9,000 but was barely half-filled. In contrast, the Caesar’s Superdome in New Orleans, which will host the championship this year, has a capacity of 74,295 and will be filled to the brim. Despite the low attendance, one of the founding fathers of the sport, James Naismith was in attendance.
The final game itself saw Oregon leaping out to an early 6-0 lead after tip-off, but Ohio State battled back to make it a 12-11 game with a little over three minutes to go in the first half. Oregon further extended their lead to seven before the halftime whistle, as Dick showcased his multitude of offensive talents. However, the Buckeyes managed to keep it a close competition, only down 21-16 at the end of the first frame. The second half was a different story though, with Oregon coming out swinging, pushing their lead to 40-29 after Dick and Hull traded baskets for a brief period.
A tactic commonly employed in the pre-shot clock era of American basketball was known as a “stall.” Simply put, when teams had an advantage, thanks to the lack of a shot clock, they switched their playstyle to protect the ball and hold onto it for as long as possible, as opposed to actively trying to score, in order to run out the clock. Oregon did just that, running down the clock and eventually capturing the title by a score of 46-33.