Several years had passed since the Kentucky Wesleyan Panthers had participated in an NCAA basketball tournament. That was an especially long time for a school that had won four national championships. After winning the national title in 1973, Kentucky Wesleyan began to go downhill. For four seasons it had losing records. The best years were 1976 and 1978 .
The turning point game in 1980 when three individuals entered the program. The first was Mike Pollio as head coach. He had been a successful high school coach in Kentucky and had been part of winning programs at Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth. He infused enthusiasm back into the Kentucky Wesleyan basketball program. The other two were Dwight Higgs and Ros Drake, hometown basketball products who decided to stay home to continue their collegiate careers. Higgs, a 6-foot-4 forward, and Drake, a 6-foot-2 guard, had led Owensboro High School to the state championship in 1980. They were blue chip players.
Wesleyan has another unexpected find in 6’11” Center Henk Pieterse (pronounced Hank Peters). Pieterse, easily Wesleyan’s tallest player ever, is a native of Amsterdam who began playing basketball when he was 17, after he suddenly sprouted five inches to 6’8″. Pieterse came to Wesleyan on the recommendation of a friend from Amsterdam, former Old Dominion Center Bert Kragtwijk. Pieterse had wanted to follow Kragtwijk and another Dutch friend to the Virginia school, but Kragtwijk suggested he contact his former assistant coach, Pollio, over in Kentucky.
The panthers started the 1982 season with seven straight victories and went on to a 23-4 record. They were ranked fourth in the nation when they went into the Great Lakes Regional tourney on their home floor. Wright State (Ohio) would be their first opponent. The game turned into a struggle for the Panthers, who trailed most of the game. At halftime Wright State was leading 36-29. And with five minutes remaining in the game the Panthers were trailing 57-51. But this was a never-say-die group of Panthers. Ray Zuberer, a thin but rugged forward, slashed through the lane for a layup to cut the margin to 61-59 with 1:39 on the clock. The Panthers finally tied the game when Drake, the master playmaker, hit Higgs moving to the basket with a pinpoint pass for an easy basket to tie the game 61-61 with 55 seconds to go. There would be no more scoring in regulation. Kentucky Wesleyan outscored its opponent 9-2 in the first three minutes of the overtime and went on to a 76-71 victory. “We played the second half to win,” Pollio said of the victory. “We played the first half not to close.”
The regional final was almost as tough with the Panthers eking out a 66-65 victory over Central State (Ohio). Drake was the dominant player with 19 points and six assists. The Panthers neede one more victory to advance to the NCAA Division II Final Four in Springfiels, Massachusetts. They had to beat Sacred Heart (Conn.) in a quarterfinal game, also played in the Owensboro Sportscenter.
It turned into another tension-filled contest. The Panthers had to overcome a 13-point deficit in the first half to record an 88-85 victory. Zuberer was unstoppable. Although playing with an 102-degree temperature, he still managed a career-high 38 points and took down seven rebounds. “Ray Zuberer was just unbelievable,”the Kentucky Wesleyan coach said. “He was sick. He had the flu, we didn’t even know if he could go. He was just inspiring.”
Higgs and Drake also came through with 22 and 11 points, respectively. Sacred Heart, using a 13-point burst at the close of the half, held a 51-38 lead at the intermission. In the first eight minutes of the second half, the Panthers charged back to take a 64-63 lead. Zuberer scored 12 points during the rally. Pollio sent his team into a stal over the last nine minutes of the game to protect the shaky lead. The Panthers scored at the free throw line, hitting 10 of 14 in the final minutes, to keep the Rams at bay. Sacred Heart closed to within 86-85, but Zuberer countered with a layup before the final buzzer for the 88-85 score.
The Panthers were going to Springfield!!
If the Panthers thought they were through with close games after the regional, they were in for a big surprise against Florida Southern in the national semifinals. Kentucky Wesleyan appeared well on the way to the championship when it was leading 72-69 with 1:40 to go. But Florida Southern center John Ebeling hit two baskets to put his team out front 73-72. Drake tied the game on a free throw with six seconds to go. A long pass to Ebeling for a final shot was stripped from his hands by Jim Johnson with one second remaining. A foul was called and Ebeling made two free throws to give his team a 73-75 lead. The Pantherss clearly needed a miracle. Cason’s inbound pass went to Drake, standing 75 feet from the basket in front of the Florida Southern bench. The Panthers got a miracle, Drake’s impossible shot tied the game.
The lead in overtime went back and forth, and it seemed the Panthers had it for good at 83-82 on Drake’s 16-footer with 13 seconds to go. Ebeling, who was fouled by Henk Pieterse on a shot under the basket with four seconds to go, went to the free throw line. He missed the first attempt. The second went through the net, sending the game into second overtime. Florida Southern took the lead 87-89 when Bob Zipko made two free throws with 10 seconds to go. Six seconds later Higgs made two pressure free throws to tie the game for the last time. Ebeling, who finished with 32 points, took another floor-length pass. He collided with Zuberer and Doug Jones, with Jones called for the body contact. Ebeling made the first shot to break the tie, but the second bounched off the rim into the hands od Higgs. Higgs dribbled to midcourt, threw up a shot, but it felt short of its destination. The Panthers also fell short, 89-90.
“I feel like we went out the way we came in,” Pollio said, “scrapping and hustling. We didn’t lose. Time just ran out.” Higgs had 30 points, Drake 17 and Jones 16.
In the consolation game against California State-Bakersfield, the Panthers fell behind14-1 but rallied to a 77-66 victory. Higgs led the way with 22 points, followed by Jones with 16. “We could have gotten embarrassed today, you know,” Pollio said. “You play a game like this not to get embarrassed. Nobody goes around holding up three fingers saying, “We’re No. 3.” It was still a nice conclusion to a successful season, a season in wich the Panthers served notice that they were back.
Higgs, the wiry forward, finished with a 20.5 average and was named a third team All-American. Zuberer averaged 15.3 points, Drake 13.8, Johnson 7.3 and Jones 4.5 as the Panthers finished 27-5.
Met dank aan Henk Pieterse voor de foto’s.