This year celebrates the centennial season of men's basketball at Tennessee. The News Sentinel continues its series looking into the players, teams and events that have molded an exciting history.
The term “March Madness” wasn’t yet part of the sporting vocabulary in 1967, but an excitement definitely gripped Tennessee basketball that season.
As the 1966-67 season played toward conclusion, the Vols were ranked in the top 10 and bearing down on an SEC title.
Led by two stars from Fulton High School and a 7-footer from Ohio, Tennessee was dreaming of making the program’s first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
To do so, however, the Vols had to win at Mississippi State in the regular-season finale.
UT hadn’t been SEC champions since 1943, when the title was awarded to the conference tournament winner. When Ron Widby broke the single-game scoring record with 50 points in a romp over LSU on March 4, it sent the Vols to Starkville with a chance to clinch the regular-season title.
The SEC tournament was in hiatus so the league’s lone berth in the NCAA tournament would go to the regular-season champ. If the Vols beat State, it was theirs. If they lost, there would be a three-way tie with Vanderbilt and Florida.
On a Monday night in Mississippi State’s “New” Gym, the Vols survived 78-76 in three overtimes to lay claim to the title with a 15-3 conference record.
Widby, a captain and All-American, scored 35 points to clinch the SEC scoring title.
Tom Hendrix stepped up with 16 points. Tom Boerwinkle, the 7-footer, had nine points and 15 rebounds.
Billy Justus, who like Widby prepped at Fulton, hit two free throws with seven seconds left to deliver the victory.
The celebration was wild. Coach Ray Mears was carried off the floor. Widby gave assistant coach Stu Aberdeen a piggy-back ride.
The Vols threw anyone they could find in the shower, including John Ward, Lowell Blanchard, Bud Ford, Marvin West and the team pilot.
They knew a berth in the Mid-East Regional in Evanston, Ill., was waiting on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.
Kentucky had represented the SEC in 15 of 20 previous NCAA tourneys. LSU had gone twice, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt once each.
Tennessee’s turn had finally arrived.
The Vols flew to Evanston to face Dayton, which had beaten Western Kentucky in a first-round game six days earlier.
On a Friday night in Northwestern University’s McGaw Fieldhouse, the Vols were favored by five points over the Flyers and their All-America forward Don May.
Two wins in Evanston and Tennessee would advance to the Final Four in Louisville, where, no doubt, mighty UCLA would be waiting.
“I thought we had the kind of team to give UCLA a good game,’’ Mears confided.
However, the Vols opened cold and trailed Dayton 36-25 at the half. They didn’t give up, rallyng to draw even at 50-50 with 2:09 to play on a Justus jumper.
Dayton led 51-50 when Widby missed a potential game-winner with 11 seconds to play. The Flyers held on to win 53-52.
In those days, the losers had to play a consolation game and Tennessee came up cold again, bowing to Indiana 51-44.
Dayton would advance to the national championship game, losing to UCLA, 79-64.
It would be another nine years before the Vols got back to the Big Dance in 1976. They wouldn’t record their first NCAA victory until 1979.
Still, the ‘67 Vols carved a cherished niche in Tennessee’s basketball history. Their outright SEC regular-season title wasn’t duplicated by another UT squad until 2008.