- The Washington Times - Monday, March 27, 2006

When Duke defeated George Washington in the second round of the NCAA tournament, it could have been considered belated payback for a notable triumph by the Colonials 63 long years ago.

On March 6, 1943, GW scuttled the Blue Devils 56-40 in Raleigh, N.C., to win its first Southern Conference championship — a notable basketball moment that remains a shining memory for surviving members of the team.

Remarkably, however, that 17-6 GW squad did not go on to the eight-team NCAA tournament, then in its fifth season. Even more remarkably, most of the Colonials didn’t care.

“Our main objective was to win the Southern Conference,” recalled Joe Gallagher, a scrappy point guard on that team and subsequently basketball coach for 45 years at St. John’s High School in the District. “I don’t remember feeling bad that we didn’t keep playing. In those days, the NCAA tournament wasn’t big.”

That should give us an idea of how different college basketball was before and during World War II. Most teams were segregated, of course; a “quintet” that could average 60 points a game was an offensive juggernaut; and anybody over 6-foot-3 was considered a big man. Oh yes, and the players wore short shorts.

Heading into the 1942-43 season, GW’s prospects were cloudy at best. Co-captains and guards Gallagher and Jim Rausch were both around 5-9, 1941-42 leading scorer Matt Zunic had graduated and highly regarded coach Bill Reinhart had left to join the Navy. In a preseason preview, Reinhart’s former assistant coach and successor, Arthur “Otts” Zahn, sang the blues: “Don’t expect too much of the boys. We probably won’t have much of a team.” (The following season, in fact, GW didn’t have any kind of team because of the wartime manpower shortage.)

Zahn was a better coach than prognosticator. Playing most of their “home” games at McKinley Tech and Eastern high schools, the Colonials beat Fort Meade 54-28 in their opener, then traveled to Durham, N.C., a month later and whacked league favorite Duke 66-53. (This was 10 years before the ACC was formed.) Though the Blue Devils won a late-February rematch 64-61, the earlier victory convinced GW’s players they could handle the Blue Devils in the tournament.

“It was a big blow when Coach Reinhart left because he was like a dad to me,” Gallagher said, “but Otts Zahn was an excellent coach, and he kept everything the same. It was no surprise to me when we won the Southern Conference. In the days before the tournament started, Otts put in a 1-3-1 zone defense — the first time we had used it all season — and it completely messed up Duke. I was the [player out front], and I ran my butt off.”

The Colonials opened the tournament by thrashing William & Mary 49-23, then outlasted Davidson 47-40 in overtime. Duke had finished 12-1 in the conference to GW’s 8-2, but the Colonials were confident heading into the championship game even though the Blue Devils were 10-point favorites. As it turned out, the optimism was justified.

After falling behind 6-3 after the first five minutes, GW soared on an 18-point run that put it in command to stay over a Duke team that was 20-5 overall and seeking its third straight conference tournament title. As Burton Hawkins put it in the Washington Star the next day, “The Colonials could do no wrong.” Writing in The Washington Post, Merrell Whittlesey called it “one of the biggest upsets in years.”

Despite his exhausting defensive role, Gallagher’s crisp passes frequently set up leading scorers Rausch (16 points) and Ed Gustafson (12). Meanwhile, Duke struggled against the 1-3-1, a defense the Blue Devils hadn’t faced.

“They just couldn’t handle it, and it caused a lot of turnovers that led to baskets for us during that 18-point streak,” Gallagher said. “Coach Reinhart always wanted to fast break. So did Otts and so did I when I became the coach at St. John’s.”

Duke rallied somewhat in the second half, coming within 30-26 early. But Rausch dashed the length of the floor for a layup, was fouled and added a free throw to push GW’s lead back to seven. Duke never threatened again.

There was a bizarre postscript to the tournament. Rausch received a trophy as the tournament’s leading scorer, but a recheck days later revealed that Duke’s Cedric Loftis had one more point. So Rausch had to send back the trophy.

“I had pictures taken with me holding it and all,” said Rausch, now retired in Indiana after 21 years as coach at Evansville North High School, “but after all, I didn’t deserve it. Anyway, I already had plenty of publicity.”

GW waited three days after the tournament to learn its postseason fate before being stiffed by the NCAA in favor of Georgetown’s 19-4 team, which ultimately went to the national championship game before falling to Wyoming. Because they lost to the Hoyas twice, including 53-30 in their final regular-season game, the Colonials had no beef coming.

“But like I said, we didn’t really care,” Gallagher insisted. “Five of us had signed up earlier for the ROTC program, and we knew we were going into the Marines after we graduated. Besides, we were satisfied with what we had accomplished.”

As well they should have been.

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