Utah Basketball Legend Arnie Ferrin Recounts 1944 NCAA Tournament Championship
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – 76 years ago, the Utah men’s basketball team won the NCAA Tournament. The most outstanding player from that team is Arnie Ferrin, who was an All-American four times.
Ferrin is now 94-years-old. He sat down with KSL Sports’ Jeremiah Jensen to stroll down memory lane and talked about the 1944 NCAA Tournament title run.
How the Utes reached the tournament was very unique compared to today’s college basketball. Here is the story of the “Blitz kids” from the Utah Redskins (mascot back then).
Run To NIT Was Not Easy
The 1944 team was made up of Utah natives who became the first Cinderella story in NCAA Tournament history.
While Ferrin was the best player on the team, Utah was very talented and had four players go on to play in the NBA. Ferrin was joined by Wat Misaka, Herb Wilkinson, Fred Sheffield, Dick Smoon, Bob Lewis and Fred Lewis made up that squad.
“That was probably the only team that won the championship while starting four freshmen, “Ferrin told Jensen.
After a 17-2 regular season record, Utah declined to play in the NCAA Tournament to play in the NIT. Back then, the NIT was the more prestigious tournament.
The NIT had the Garden and media so we opted for that,” Ferrin said. “We had four or five players on our team that never left the state of Utah before the NIT. There were four that have never been on a train.”
Utah had to overcome many obstacles in order to get to New York City. They dealt with train delays, losing their equipment and losing train tickets. But, the team was able to make it to the Big Apple to face Kentucky in the first round.
The Redskins lost to the Wildcats in the first round.
How Utah Reached The NCAA Tournament
One day after the loss to Kentucky, Utah head coach Vadal Peterson received a telegram.
“We were sitting around mourning at the fact that we didn’t play very well,” Ferrin mentioned. “Vadal Peterson called the University to see if we could stay one more day to see New York City.”
During that time, Arkansas pulled out of the NCAA Tournament after a car accident took the life of a staffer and seriously injured two players. Utah received an invitation to replace them in the NCAA Tournament.
“We took the train to Kansas City and won a couple of games then got back to New York City to play in the finals,” Ferrin said.
Utah would face Dartmouth in the National Championship at Madison Square Garden. Dartmouth was full of star players who were training in the U.S. Navy’s V-12 program on the Dartmouth campus. Those players compared to Utah’s four freshmen starters, the Redskins were big underdogs.
But, Utah played very well. Arnie Ferrin scored 22 points and had a lead with just second left when Dartmouth’s Dick McGuire hit the biggest shot of his career.
When the game went to overtime, it was Utah’s time to shine. The game was tied at 40 in the final moments when Herb Wilkinson made a jump shot from 20-feet out to give Utah the win.
Two days later, Utah played one more game in a charity fundraiser for the Red Cross. They played St. Johns who won the NIT. It was Utah’s chance at redemption after losing in the first round of the NIT before they were substituted into the NCAA Tournament.
Ferrin led Utah with 17 points and a win over St. Johns, 43-36 to win a mythical national championship.
“We were pretty familiar with New York City by the time we were on our way home, ” Ferrin said.
Utah was out on the road for 16 straight before returning home to Salt Lake City to a parade.
“We played together and that was the main difference,” Ferrin said.
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