It was March 14, 1958. The site was Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas. And Oscar Robertson was uncharacteristically nervous.
It was bad enough that the referees were actually enforcing the ten-second clock on foul shots, and teammate Ron Dykes was yelling at him to hurry. The shot Robertson was about to attempt would have given Cincinnati a 75-74 lead over Kansas State with only a second to go. A trip to the Elite Eight was on the line.
That shot hit the back of the rim, and in two overtimes the third-ranked Wildcats managed to overcome the second-ranked Bearcats, posting an 83-80 win to move on to the Midwest Regional final. Robertson had put on a show, scoring 30 points; K-State was led by its own All-American legend, Bob Boozer, who recorded 24.
Even before the game, no less a luminary than Hank Iba declared it to be the game of the year; the result did nothing to change that sentiment. The Wildcats went on to defeat Iba’s own Oklahoma State squad to reach their third Final Four in eleven years, only to fall first to Elgin Baylor’s Seattle squad and then to Temple in the third-place game.
That epic contest was the first-ever meeting between Kansas State and Cincinnati. It was also the last time K-State ever beat the Bearcats, but it was certainly not the last time a Cat-on-Cat meeting would be the stuff of legend.
Exactly one year later, in exactly the same place, the two teams met again. It was a round later this time, however, and the Final Four itself was the prize. The Wildcats, ranked number one in the nation, 25-1 on the season with a 21-game winning streak, had crushed DePaul 102-70 in the first round. Cincinnati was ranked fifth; 34 points from Robertson had been just enough to get the Bearcats past TCU 77-73.
The Wildcats had the better of it in the first half, taking a 41-39 lead. Later, they had stretched matters out to 53-49, but Cincinnati began mounting a comeback. The game was rough, and both Boozer and Robertson were in foul trouble. Even so, the game was still within four points late before Dave Tenwick erupted in the final 40 seconds to give Cincinnati an 85-75 win.
But just as had happened to the Wildcats the previous year, Cincinnati was unable to capitalize. In the Final Four, the Bearcats fell to California, although they did defeat Louisville in the third-place game.
In 1960, Cincinnati again reached the Final Four, again losing to Cal before beating NYU in the consolation game. However, it was not K-State they beat to get there, but rather Kansas (in a game played at Ahearn). The Wildcats missed the tournament that year.
But they returned in 1961, knocking off Houston 75-64 to set up what would be the rubber match in their NCAA series with Cincinnati. The Bearcats got there with a 78-55 drubbing of Texas Tech.
Once again, it was an epic matchup even before the tip. Cincinnati was ranked second in the nation, K-State fourth. Boozer and Robertson were gone, of course; Cincinnati was led by All-American Paul Hogue, while the Wildcats relied on a solid but individually unspectacular rotation. (Indeed, against Houston, Tex Winter had resorted to benching most of his starters to spark the squad.)
In the first half, K-State jumped out to a nine-point lead, but Cincinnati reeled the Wildcats back in and went to the locker room tied at 33. Again, K-State jumped out, leading by seven at one point, but at the 8:27 mark Carl Bouldin hit a jumper which put Cincy ahead 50-48. K-State never caught up again, falling 69-64, and Cincinnati was off to their third straight Final Four.
The Bearcats’ reward was a meeting with Utah, coached by former Wildcat boss Jack Gardner. Cincinnati prevailed 82-67, and then went on to face Ohio State in an epic national championship game. The Bearcats won their first national championship in a 70-65 overtime classic. They repeated, again with a 71-59 win over the Buckeyes, in 1962.
Although they’d never meet in the NCAA Tournament again, the epic battles were enough to convince the two schools to schedule one another in the regular season, although in 1962 this was part of an annual KU/K-State opponent trade-off. Cincinnati visited Manhattan in December 1962, once again the top-ranked team in the nation on the heels of their back-to-back championships, while Arizona State took on Kansas. The Kansas teams traded opponents the following night.
It was a rough start to the year for the Wildcats, who’d already dropped early-season games to Arkansas, Michigan State, and Saint Louis. The Bearcats kept the misery flowing, cruising to a 75-61 win, although K-State had kept matters close early.
K-State did rebound to claim a share of the Big 8 title with Colorado, but the Buffaloes ended up with the NCAA Tournament bid. Once again, Cincinnati moved on to the national championship, but this time they lost to the unlikeliest of opponents — the Loyola-Illinois Ramblers.
The following December, the Wildcats paid Cincinnati back, going on the road. On the way, they posted road wins over Indiana and Saint Louis, and another epic battle appeared likely.
The rivals did not disappoint.
Cincinnati did surge to a ten-point lead in the second half, but Willie Murrell led a furious comeback. Murrell had 25 on the night, and his bucket with 1:48 to go tied the score at 70.
Nobody scored for the next 1:47.
With five seconds to go, Cincy’s Ron Bonham launched a mid-range jumper that hit iron. George Wilson rebounded and tried a putback; it bounced off. Wilson leapt, tipped, and the ball miraculously found the center of the cylinder. Once again, Cincinnati had ripped K-State’s hearts out.
This time, however, the post-season results were much different. Cincinnati failed to win the Missouri Valley for the first time in six years, finishing 17-9 with a lackluster 6-6 league record. K-State, on the other hand, won the Big 8 and earned an NCAA bid. Wins over Texas Western (now UTEP) and Wichita State put the Wildcats in their final Final Four, but they were doomed. Their semifinal opponent was a little team from Los Angeles who, like the Wildcats, had never won a national championship.
You all know what happened next.
After meeting five times in six years, the schools took a short break but again renewed their series in December, 1967. Again, Cincinnati participated in the Sunflower Classic, this time held in Lawrence with the Cat squads meeting one another on the second night. On the first, K-State beat Texas A&M while Kansas knocked off the Bearcats.
Cincinnati led by six points late, but the Wildcats fought back. Ultimately, a desperate heave from Gene Williams as the clock expired tied the game at 54. The teams couldn’t score in the first four minutes of overtime, but with 45 seconds left Rick Roberson stole the ball from Williams and scored on a layup. On the return trip, Gordy Smith fouled K-State’s Louie Small, but Small missed the front end of a one-and-one; Dean Foster hit one of two for the Bearcats to take a three-point lead. Earl Seyfert responded with a jumper to close within a point. K-State had to foul; with one second left, Jim Ard sank a free throw to put Cincinnati up 58-56, and the Wildcats just didn’t have time to score again.
Cincinnati missed the tournament that year, while K-State did not. But the Wildcats lost to TCU in the regional semifinal, and again to Louisville to end their campaign.
The series ended with a whimper. Neither squad would see post-season action following the 1968-69 campaign, and their December meeting in Cincinnati was a blowout. The Bearcats won 86-70, and with that one of the greatest intersectional rivalries of the decade didn’t just go on hiatus — it died.
It’s been over 48 years since these once-rivals have met on the basketball court. Hard to fathom, given the legitimately intense rivalry the teams established. But it wasn’t necessarily a case of hated rivals. Indeed, until the latter’s death, Robertson and Boozer were dear friends, having played together on Team USA, in the Olympics, and even for a brief time in the NBA. Ed Junker and Tex Winter certainly respected one another a great deal. And while some games did get chippy, especially Cincinnati’s 1959 revenge match, there was a lot of respect on the court from both teams.
But now, it’s time for a renewal. Can the Wildcats even up the post-season series at two wins apiece? Or will Cincinnati’s dominance, narrow as it was in practice, re-assert itself?