Flashback: VU's 1951 SEC Tournament championship

No Vanderbilt team has won the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament since the event was revived in the 1979 season. But the Commodores do own one SEC Tournament championship... it came in 1951, and the final game marks one of the most memorable moments in Vandy's storied basketball history. VandyMania historian <B>Howell Peiser</b> recalls the stirring upset over the "unbeatable" Wildcats of '51.

It Couldn't Be Done
Somebody said that it couldn't be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That "maybe it couldn't," but he would be one
Who wouldn't say so till he'd tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn't be done, and he did it.
Somebody scoffed: "Oh, you'll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it";
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he'd begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn't be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That "cannot be done," and you'll do it.
--Edgar A. Guest


The 1950-51 basketball regular season had been a good one for Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 10-4 in conference play, good enough for a second-place tie with Alabama. Two of the four losses had come at the hands of the nation's No. 1 team, Kentucky. The Wildcats had run the table in the SEC, winning all 14 games by lopsided margins. Though the SEC Tournament no longer determined the NCAA representative, the Wildcats were better than odds-on favorites to take the post-season championship as well.

The SEC tournament was held at Louisville's Jefferson County Armory (known today as Louisville Gardens). Fifty-four years ago, the 12-team bracket was determined quite differently than today's SEC tournament. Finishing in the top four did not guarantee a first-round bye. A blind draw by the league office picked four lucky teams who received passes to the quarterfinals; the other eight teams played based on the highest versus lowest seedings between them. The Commodores had been lucky the year before and received one of the byes; this year, the odds caught up with them. The No. 2-seeded Commodores had to play in the opening round.

LSU, Auburn, Georgia and Georgia Tech, all 6-8, drew the byes. The tournament bracket showed 10-4 Vandy opening with 5-9 Tennessee, with the winner getting Georgia. 10-4 Alabama faced 5-9 Ole Miss with the winner facing LSU. On the other side of the bracket, 8-6 Tulane played 6-8 Florida, with the winner moving on to face Georgia Tech; 14-0 Kentucky played the late-night game against 2-12 Mississippi State, with the winner facing Auburn.

Thursday, March 1

As Vandy prepared to take on Tennessee, fans were hoping for at least one win. It had been ten long years since the Commodores last won a game in the SEC Tournament.

Vanderbilt coach Bob Polk basically went with a seven-man rotation. Starting at center was 6-4 Al Weiss. 6-4 George Kelley and 6-2 Dave Kardokus started at forward, while 6-3 Bob Dudley Smith and 6-0 Jack Heldman started at guard. On the bench, forward/center 6-3 Gene Southwood and 5-7 guard Bob White were the two main contributors. Kardokus made first-team All-SEC, while Weiss and Kelley made honorable mention.

Tennessee had eliminated the Commodores in an upset just one year earlier. The Orange started a 6-8 bruising center who would wind up in the Hall of Fame one day and be recognized as one of the best ever at his position. It wasn't as a basketball player that this center gained notoriety; he became the most feared defensive lineman in the NFL playing for the Chicago Bears. His name: Doug Atkins.

As happens often in first round tournament games, both teams came out a little tight. Early in the game, neither team could find the mark. Thanks to foul shots, Vandy led 5-4 after three minutes of action. Tennessee took an 8-7 lead six minutes into the contest, before Kardokus and Weiss found the range. Rather quickly, the Commodores scored four baskets to go up 15-8.

After a Vol free throw, Weiss got open inside for a lay-up to push the lead to eight. Tennessee guard Bob Harrison sank a couple of free tosses to cut it to 17-11. Then, Weiss took command. He hit the game's next four baskets to push the Commodore lead to 25-11. The rout was on.

The guards kept finding Weiss open under the basket, and he kept hitting. He sank three more shots before he finally missed. A small run at the end of the first half brought Tennessee within 11 points. After a miserable shooting percentage in the opening minutes, Vandy had recovered to hit 18 of 48 in the opening half. Tennessee's percentage was well under 25%.

It took the Black and Gold a mere five minutes of the second half to salt the game away. Kardokus came out hot and was soon joined by Kelley and Heldman. After the spurt, the scoreboard showed Vandy leading, 60-36. Vandy increased its lead to 30, then 35 points. As the lead approached 40, Polk emptied his bench playing seldom-used George McChesney, Bucky Herring, and Jimmy Clark. Clark and McChesney tallied their first points of the season, as Vandy coasted to an 88-52 slaughter. It was Vandy's biggest margin of victory to that date over the Vols.

Friday, March 2

Vanderbilt's opponent in the quarterfinals was Georgia. The Commodores had finished the regular season less than a week earlier by beating the Bulldogs in Nashville (David Lipscomb's McQuiddy Gymnasium was home in 1951) by a dozen points. The Bulldogs had one very good player in guard Zippy Morocco and a bunch of average players to compliment him.

Once again the Commodores started sluggishly. In the opening minutes Georgia led 13-10, before Vandy reeled off 12 in a row to go up 22-13. The rest of the half saw both teams having a problem maintaining their rhythm. The officials took over the game with their whistles and turned the game into a foul-fest. Vandy took a 38-31 halftime lead.

Georgia kept the game close, cutting it to five points midway through the final stanza, but Kelley and Weiss hit some key baskets to put the Commodores up by double digits. Down the stretch, the Goldmen made repeated trips to the charity stripe. Smith hit several free tosses, and Vandy held on to win 70-60. Leading the black and gold in scoring was Smith with 18; Kardokus was close behind with 17, while Kelley added 12 points and 19 rebounds. In the semifinals Vandy would face LSU, which had come from behind to nip Ole Miss.

Saturday Morning, March 3

In 1951, the semifinals and finals of the SEC Tournament were scheduled for the same day. The semifinals were played in the morning and the championship game was played in the evening. Kentucky played Georgia Tech in the 10 a.m. game, while Vandy met LSU at 11:45 a.m. (Games were typically played in less than an hour and a half back then.)

LSU's one star player was Joe Dean (later known as Mr. "String Music"), an excellent set shooter who could score points quickly when he was hot. The Tigers as a team ran the second-best fast break in the SEC, behind Kentucky.

The Tigers quickly jumped to a 7-2 lead. Vandy then fought back to tie the score on a Kelley put-back, a Weiss foul shot, then two made Weiss foul shots. Heldman then connected on a made free throw to put the 'Dores up 8-7. LSU tied the score at 11-11 six minutes into the game. Vandy went on a small run when consecutive baskets by Kelley, Smith, Kelley, and Kardokus gave them a 19-11 lead. LSU responded with seven straight to cut the lead to one.

The teams traded baskets for the next few minutes, and then LSU took a one-point lead at 27-26. Heldman hit a long set shot to put Vandy back on top. After LSU tied the game at 33-33 a minute later, Heldman hit for two and then Kardokus canned consecutive baskets in close to put the Commodores up by six. Vandy was on a decisive run to finish the half. Heldman and Southwood added baskets to put Vandy up 43-30 at the break.

The teams traded baskets to start the second half, with LSU cutting one point off the halftime lead. Leading 49-37, Weiss then took over the game. He hit four consecutive shots, while LSU went cold. The Commodores sprinted to a 62-45 lead midway through the final half. LSU began to hurry its shots, and Vandy started to hold the ball. A few Commodore turnovers allowed the Tigers to chop away a few points of the lead, but not enough. Vandy cruised, 75-63.

Smith led five Commodores reached double figures, with 17; Weiss hit for 16; Kardokus added 15, Heldman scored 13; and Kelley contributed 11.

Meanwhile, Kentucky blew Georgia Tech off the floor 82-56 in the 10 a.m. game. The Commodore win over LSU finished at 1:30 p.m. Vandy had seven hours to rest before taking on Adolph Rupp's "unbeatable" Wildcats.

Saturday Evening, March 3

Kentucky had won eight consecutive SEC Tournament Championships and 12 of the 17 played before 1951. Rupp's Wildcats (27-1) were as impressive-looking in their day as the 1968 UCLA Bruins would be 17 years later.

UK's roster looked like an all-star team. The team averaged better than 75 points per game and gave up just over 50. In going 14-0 in the regular SEC season and 3-0 in the SEC Tournament, UK's average spread was 82-52. Only one SEC team avoided a 20-point or worse loss, and that was by 17 points. The Wildcats out-rebounded their opponents by more than 20 per game.

At center was 7-footer Bill Spivey, the first seven-footer who could run the court and play like today's NBA giants. The junior from Warner Robins, Ga. was a consensus first team All-American. One forward spot was manned by muscular 6-5 Shelby Linville, an All-SEC second-teamer. Walter Hirsch, a 6-4 senior forward from Dayton, Ohio, had been selected All-SEC the year before. Two more first-team All-SEC players started at guard: 6-3 sophomore Frank Ramsey and 5-10 junior Bobby Watson, an outstanding play-maker with a long-range set shot. On the bench was perhaps Rupp's greatest player ever. Backup big man Cliff Hagan, a 6-4 post player from Owensboro, Ky., had already torched Mississippi State for 20 points and Auburn for 25 in this tournament. The key reserves were 6-5 forward Lou Tsioropoulos and 6-0 guard Lucian Whitaker. These eight stars composed basketball's version of the 1927 Yankees.

Vanderbilt had not competed with the Wildcats in two previous games. Kentucky won 74-49 in Nashville and 89-57 in Lexington. (When Vandy had faced UK four years earlier in the SEC Tourney, the Wildcats had won by the outlandish score of 98-29.) Oddsmakers established a line of 30 points.

Commodore trainer Joe Worden attended to the Commodore players in their beds, as the team tried to rest for several hours after beating LSU earlier in the day. Polk wanted his players to stay off their feet as much as possible. He thought the only way to compete in this game was for Vandy to be fresh and enjoy a hot shooting night as it had against Tennessee.

8:30 p.m. came. A sold-out crowd of 7,500, mostly Kentucky fans, filled the Armory.

Vandy scored the first bucket on a Smith set shot from outside. Kentucky missed again, and Kelley pulled down the rebound. Spivey fouled him, but he missed the single free throw. Kentucky finally got on the scoreboard when Smith fouled Watson and Watson hit the single shot to make it 2-1 Vanderbilt. A tip-in by Linville put Kentucky up by one, and a Smith foul shot tied the game at 3-3.

Coach Polk ordered his troops to spread the floor and make cuts off the post. Kentucky's tough, pressure man-to-man defense stopped the Goldmen for the next two minutes, while its fast break picked up a couple of baskets and a free throw. UK led 8-3. That was the Cats' biggest lead in the opening period. Vandy regained the lead on a Kelley lay-up at 15-13 just past the midway point of the half. Unfortunately, at about the same time, Weiss picked up his second, third, and fourth fouls; he would sit for the rest of the half. Southwood replaced him.

George Kelley collides with UK's Frank Ramsey scrambling for a loose ball in the SEC Tournament final. No. 77 at left for Kentucky is 7-foot center Bill Spivey. (File / VUAD)

Vanderbilt continued to hustle all over the floor, making Kentucky's great offense looked human for a change. The Wildcat guards weren't hitting, so the black and gold defenders started to sink back and plug the inside. Spivey couldn't find an opening, and at the defensive end he found himself repeatedly beaten inside by Kelley and Heldman. Vandy took a five-point lead at 26-21 with three minutes left in the half.

Kentucky closed the half on a big run. The Cats reeled off nine points in the final two and a half minutes to take a 30-26 lead into the locker room. The Commodores were stayed within striking range only by their free throw shooting (10-of-15).

Kentucky's fast break opened up a 10-point lead at 40-30 early in the half. Wildcat fans in the stands were prepared for the inevitable; their great team was about to put another victim out of its misery.

But Vanderbilt refused to fold. Polk instructed his players to speed up the offense; Vandy could not afford to run huge amounts of time on every possession and catch the nation's best offensive team. Kardokus hit a driving jumper. Kentucky failed to score, and Smith hit a one-handed jumper. Kardokus followed with another jumper, and Heldman retrieved a missed shot and put it back for two. The Wildcat lead shrank to one point in just two and a half minutes.

Kentucky then decided to slow things down, as their players appeared to be showing signs of fatigue. Even though Vandy played the later morning game, the Commodores appeared to have more energy. Hirsch hit a lay-up for the Wildcats to make it 50-47, and Southwood hit a set shot from the baseline corner to cut it to one once again. Kentucky missed, and Vandy got the ball back with a chance to take the lead. The ball was passed to Southwood once again, and he fired another long set shot. It hit the mark, and Vandy led 51-50 with under seven minutes to go.

Kentucky appeared to try to slow the game down, while Vandy became the aggressor. Spivey finally broke the small scoring drought for Kentucky with a put-back basket. Cats 52, Vandy 51. Vandy brought the ball down the floor; the Cats doubled up on Southwood. It left an opening for Kardokus, and the star exploited it with a quick drive for a basket. Vandy led once again by one with just over five minutes to go. Kentucky countered by working the ball to Spivey, who caught it and hit the short jumper. Weiss committed his fifth foul on the shot, and Spivey completed the three-point play. Kentucky led 55-53 with five minutes left.

Vandy quickly in-bounded the ball and pushed it up the floor. Before Kentucky's defense was in position, Kardokus outran Ramsey and hit a runner to tie the game at 55. The basket was worth more than just the two points on the scoreboard. Kentucky just didn't get beat for cheap baskets, especially late when the game was on the line.

The Wildcats brought the ball into the frontcourt, but Vandy's defense was now operating at its peak. The Cats couldn't get an open look and forced a bad one that missed. Vandy got the rebound and ran the fast break. Kardokus spotted Southwood and tossed him the ball. For the fourth time in a row, he fired and hit. Vandy led 57-55 with four minutes left.

The game was becoming a chess match. There were no pawns on the board, just rooks, bishops, knights, and queens. The two kings, Rupp and Polk, directed from the bench. Which team would make the wrong move, the white (Kentucky) or the black (Vandy)?

The Wildcats were tiring, and their offensive patterns lacked the precision and quickness that Kentucky fans were used to watching. Another missed shot, and the ball belonged to Vandy. The Goldmen ran the ball into the lane and Kelley was fouled by Hirsch. Kelley connected on both tosses, and Vandy led 59-55 with a little over three minutes to go. Kentucky was in check.

Rupp ordered the ball to go to Spivey in the paint (in those days, the lane was only six feet wide). Spivey wheeled on Kelley, and appeared to have him beat. At the last minute, Kardokus moved over and picked up a foul. Spivey's foul shot didn't come close, and Vandy rebounded. Polk ordered the weave (a type of stall pre-dating the four corners). Kentucky stole a pass and ran the break. Spivey got down the floor and made a lay-up to cut the Commodore lead to 59-57. Just a little over two minutes remained.

Vandy resumed its weave, as the clock dipped under two minutes and approached one and a half. Smith saw an opening in the lane and drove for an uncontested lay-up. Vandy led 61-57.

In the final minute plus, Kentucky missed every shot it attempted, both from the field and the foul line. Vandy retrieved the rebounds and held onto the ball. The Wildcats had one final chance for a breakaway lay-up in the final minute. Out of nowhere, little Bob White, all of 5-7, leapt to intercept a long outlet pass. The Cats had to foul, but in those days the team being fouled had the option of waiving the free throw attempt and taking the ball out of bounds. Vandy chose to waive the shots, and Kentucky was unable to force a turnover. The last few seconds ticked off the clock. Checkmate! If Al Michaels had been announcing this game, his famous "Do you believe in miracles?" statement might have been apropos. Edgar A. Guest would have been proud.

Vanderbilt had connected on just 24 of 73 shots for 32.9% (but 16 of 38 in the second half). Kentucky shot just 27.6%. Four Commodores scored in double figures: Smith (15), Southwood (14), Kardokus (13) and Heldman (11). Spivey scored 21 points for Kentucky, but he shot only 8-of-23.

Adolph Rupp was not a happy coach in the post-game press conference. He made several snide remarks about Coach Polk having better players, but the next day he gave Vanderbilt the credit it deserved.

Coach Bob Polk is surrounded by the 1951 Commdores. They had every right to be giddy: they had finished the season as SEC Tournament champions. (File / VUAD)

The victorious team and a big trophy returned to Nashville on Sunday, March 4. Waiting at the airport were about 1,500 cheering fans. An airport official called it the largest gathering ever at Berry Field. Once the team deplaned, fans picked up Coach Polk and George Kelley and carried them from the plane to the terminal, where the real celebration began.

There was talk that Vanderbilt might receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, as this was the first year the tournament expanded to 16 teams. Vanderbilt also received an invitation to the first (and eventually only) Bradley University Back-to-Campus post-season invitational. Bradley decided to hold an on-campus tournament because several teams no longer desired to play in the NIT at Madison Square Garden. The big point-shaving scandal in college basketball was at its zenith. Most of the affected games occurred in major cities in large auditoriums.

After returning to Nashville, the players voted to turn down any post-season bids. After beating the unbeatable, there was little left to play for.


Additional notes: Vanderbilt radio play-by-play announcer Larry Munson broadcasted the final few minutes as though he were Coach Polk. Several times during the final few minutes, instead of announcing what was going on, he rose from his seat, microphone in hand, and began trying to direct the Vandy attack. Munson was gifted, and his announcing style further served to generate interest in the program.

Gene Southwood's outside set shot was always delivered on a flat trajectory. If you remember Al McKinney's flat delivery, Southwood's may have been even flatter.

Some information and statistics came from: The Nashville Tennessean, The Nashville Banner, The New York Times, The Louisville Courier Journal, The Lexington Herald-Leader, and the University of Kentucky official athletic web page.

Next: Either Vanderbilt's 1964, 1988, and 1993 runs in the NCAA tournament or The 1990 NIT championship run, depending on Vanderbilt's fate this week.

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