By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON (Feb. 14, 2014) – The 1963-64 Catholic University men's basketball team won the first conference championship in program history. The Cardinals had been knocking on the door in previous seasons but were never quite able to break through.
That changed on Feb. 29, 1964 when CUA downed its biggest rival at the time, Mount St. Mary's, 56-52, to win the Mason-Dixon Conference Tournament. The triumph came in front of a packed house of 2,200 at Brookland Gymnasium.
The Cards broke a 50-50 tie when John Sevick sank two free throws with 3:40 to play. Senior Bill Leahy scored the final two points from the line and finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds. He was glad to see his Cardinal career come to a close on a high note.
"It was a tremendous feeling, a lot of excitement," said Leahy, a second-team All-American who averaged 18.5 points and 14.5 rebounds that season.
Leahy, according to CUA's student newspaper, The Tower, "was carried off the court in triumph." He credited the 1-3-1 zone defense Coach Tom Young had installed late in the season.
"That helped us go through the whole tournament," Leahy said. "We were usually very effective with it, and the team embraced it. Winning [the title] was a great feeling, one you'll never forget."
CUA had only beaten the Mount once in nine tries during Leahy's four years. In 1962, Coach Jim Phelan led the Mountaineers to the NCAA College Division National Championship.
The Cards had lost twice to the Mount in 1963-64, 78-71 at Brookland Gym and 66-65 in Emmitsburg, Md. Sophomore point guard Mike Fessler scored 23 points in the first game and 24 in the second.
"We had some great, great games with them," Young said. "They had a lot of athletes. Every game we played with them, it just seemed that it was knock-down, drag-out, whether it was at our place or their place. It probably was as good a rivalry that you could expect to have anywhere – ACC, Big 10. Our students got into it; their students got into it.
"It was really good for Catholic U. basketball, that's for sure."
The triumph earned the 16-10 Cardinals a date in the NCAA College Tournament, only the second time the program had ever advanced that far. The first was 1944.
The Mason-Dixon Conference formed in 1936 when Waldo Hamilton of Johns Hopkins and CUA Track Coach Dorsey Griffith conceived the idea of a track and field-only association. The league included nine teams from Washington, D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. In 1940, it expanded to sponsor basketball.
Amazingly, one person working for the Cards then is still employed at CUA. Equipment manager Franny Murray is in his 67th season at his alma mater and has seen every home basketball game since 1947. In 2009, the DuFour Center playing surface was named "Franny Murray Court." He and Young remain good friends.
Young, who played for Maryland when the team won its first Atlantic Coast Conference championship in 1958, also coached baseball at CUA.
"It was my first job, so I was happy to be coaching, especially at the college level," he said. "With Franny Murray and company, it turned out to be a good situation and probably the best that I could ever hope for just coming out of college."
Young wasn't much older than the guys he was coaching.
"All the players had total respect for Tom Young. Age wasn't relevant; we never looked at it that way," Leahy said. "We just looked at it as was he, first, a good person and then secondly a good coach. And the answer was yes on both counts."
Season Begins Amid National Tragedy
The Cardinals began the season on Dec. 1, 1963, just six days after the Funeral Mass for John F. Kennedy was celebrated nearby in the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.
Leahy recalls being in a statistics class when he heard the news that Kennedy had been assassinated. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "It was traumatic, and everyone was in disbelief."
According to The Tower's Dec. 6 edition, students, faculty and staff began filling the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception almost immediately. It was against this backdrop that the Cards took to the court for the first time.
Leahy had 21 rebounds in the season opener but CUA lost to Providence, 65-61. The Cardinals fell again two days later with another home setback, 69-67 to Seton Hall.
CUA earned its way into the win column with victories over Shepherd and Johns Hopkins, and following a home loss to Mount St. Mary's on Dec. 13, the Cardinals won a season-high five in a row. They closed an eight-game road swing with wins at Towson, St. Peter's and Fairleigh-Dickinson, the final two by one point each.
The Cards then lost to Xavier (Ohio) in Brookland Gym, 86-73. Sevick held Steve Thomas – who averaged 30 points that year – to 12 points. On Feb. 9, the Cardinals rolled at Howard, 91-58. That night – Feb. 9, 1964 – an estimated 73 million people watched The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York.
A couple days later, CUA defeated Gallaudet 49-22 while the Beatles performed their first concert in the United States at the nearby Washington Coliseum.
Leahy was not aware of John, Paul, George and Ringo's British invasion of Washington.
"I remember watching The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, but I didn't tie the Beatles in with the game against Gallaudet that night," he said. "I remember being out to a restaurant, and all the people saying those guys won't go anywhere.
"Honestly, we liked all the music."
The Cardinals closed the regular season with three losses on the road, including the one-point heartbreaker at Mount St. Mary's, and entered the Mason-Dixon Conference Tournament with zero momentum. What the Cards had going for them, however, was that the tourney was on their home floor.
Cardinals Capture Mason-Dixon and Head to NCAAs
CUA began its run to the title on Feb. 27 with a 98-83 victory over Old Dominion. Fessler, a 5-foot-10 sophomore from Louisville, Ky., scored 28 points and Leahy grabbed 14 rebounds.
The next night, the Cardinals dropped Randolph-Macon, 95-85. Fessler was even better, scoring 38 points on 13 of 22 shooting from the field and 12-for-12 from the line. Leahy continued his rebounding dominance with 22 boards.
In the Saturday night championship-game triumph over the Mountaineers, Charlie Boylan equaled Leahy's point total with 15 and collected 11 rebounds. The next year, in a 109-76 win at Washington (Md.) College, Boylan exploded for a school-record 60 points. His ballhandling against Mount St. Mary's drew praise from The Tower:
"The usual Mount full-court press never materialized as Boylan consistently out-maneuvered his defender."
Fessler scored 11 points that night, Sevick eight and Jack Spencer seven. Leahy posted tournament averages of 18 points and 16.3 boards. Fessler, for the season, averaged 14.1 points.
The three victories earned CUA an automatic bid to the Eastern Sectional of the NCAA College Division Tournament. Playing on Hofstra's home floor in Hempstead, N.Y., the Cards lost, 92-91, in double overtime. Six Cardinals fouled out, and the Flying Dutchmen won it on a free throw with 12 seconds left.
Murray didn't mince words when he said, "We got screwed. They called that final foul on a guy who was 10 feet away from anyone — unbelievable."
Fessler, the only starter not to foul out, scored 27 points, including a late basket that sent the game to a second overtime. Leahy had 18 points and Sevick 16.
"It was a very difficult loss to take because we deserved to win. Our guys played really well," Young recalled in 2010. "As Franny said, it was an incredible call at the end of the game. It was just too bad because we were playing at their place, and we really deserved to win the basketball game. It was a tough way to end a very, very good season for a bunch of guys who really played well and deserved to win.
"But having said that, they had a great year, but it could have been even greater if we had gotten a fair shake."
CUA also lost the tournament consolation game, 94-64, to Philadelphia Textile and finished 16-12.
Sevick, a senior from Kansas City, Kansas, was a first alternate for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. The Kansas City Times reported that he did graduate work in philosophy at the University of Kansas before enlisting in the Army in February 1965. He was killed in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam on Feb. 1, 1968 when struck by mortar fragments. Lt. John Francis Sevick was 25.
"When I heard the news, it was just devastating," Leahy said. "He was a great guy – a very nice person, a quiet person and a good basketball player."
The Cardinals never made it back to the NCAA Tournament under Young but continued to post winning seasons. He left after a 13-11 campaign in 1966-67 to return to Maryland as an assistant.
Young became head coach at American in 1969 and enjoyed his greatest success at Rutgers (1973-85), where he was named 1976 Coach of the Year by The Sporting News and UPI after leading the Scarlet Knights (31-2) to the Final Four. His star player, Eddie Jordan, hired him in 2003 as an assistant coach with the Washington Wizards. Young retired for good in 2007.
Leahy produced 20 points and 10 rebounds in his final game and was named to the All-Tournament team. He is still the school's all-time leading rebounder (1,130), and his 12.7 career average is also No. 1.
Young said Leahy's toughness is what set him apart on the glass.
"He came to play every night, every practice, and he just thought every rebound belonged to him, even though he was 6-3," he said. "He really had a good career. He was like the last guy we took on scholarship; we took him very late, and it was really a good choice for us."
Leahy said the support the team got throughout his career was tremendous.
"It helped going out there knowing your entire school was going to be there, that the gymnasium was going to be full and they were going to be cheering for you the way they should," he said. "[It] helped you get another rebound, get another point, win another game."
Chris McManes is a Catholic University sports historian and consultant to the CUA Athletic Department.