March 10, 2012
1942 WVU national title team 'had the heart'
Upset at Madison Square Garden still one for the books
Kenny Kemp
At his home in Kanawha City, 89-year-old Hugh Hicks reminisces about the 1942 NIT title the West Virginia University Mountaineers won at Madison Square Garden. His brother, Roger, played on the team and scored the foul shot that put WVU ahead in the final seconds of the title game against Western Kentucky. An avid WVU fan, he still watches every game.
Kenny Kemp
Roger "Shorty" Hicks (left) rides with WVU teammates Lou Kalmar (center) and Scotty Hicks during a victory parade in Morgantown the day after the Mountaineers won the 1942 NIT trophy in New York City.
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Trailing 32-24 at halftime, the Mountaineers roared back to tie the game 40-40 with eight minutes left. Western Kentucky pulled ahead by one point. Only 50 seconds remained.

Deafening noise rattled the rafters at Madison Square Garden. A record capacity throng of 18,250 jumped and clapped and hollered, hearts in their throats.

WVU tied it again on a free throw. With 20 seconds to go, the Mountaineers got the ball back and forced a foul.

A scrappy little Mountaineer named Shorty Hicks stepped up to the foul line. Ten seconds left.

Feverish tension engulfed the storied arena. A national championship, the coveted NIT trophy, rested in the hands of the skinny kid from Moundsville.

Back in Morgantown, at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, Hugh Hicks stared at the radio, straining to hear. Shouting fraternity brothers crowded around him.

It was like that all over town.

"Every radio was covered up with people," Hugh Hicks said. "You couldn't find an unoccupied space anywhere near a radio."

His stomach churned, but he also felt a certain calm. That was his brother at the foul line.

"I wasn't concerned," he said. "Shorty was one of the best foul shot shooters I've ever seen, including a lot of pros. I don't want to sound like I'm bragging, but I knew he would make it."

Swish.

Shorty Hicks put the Mounties ahead, 46-45.

Before the buzzer, another WVU player hit a foul shot to make the final score 47-45.

Phi Delts stormed out of the frat house. They didn't burn couches back then. Instead, students literally danced in the streets.

"Morgantown and its 3,000 WVU students broke loose with a wild, tumultuous celebration after their team's 47-45 victory over Western Kentucky tonight," The Charleston Gazette reported the following morning.

". . . Thousands of students and townspeople rushed into the streets, singing, shouting and parading. Horns blew and guns were fired as the spontaneous demonstration burst forth seconds after victory was reported."

At 89 years old, Hugh Hicks remembers the scene as if it happened last night. "They were throwing everything and yelling. You would have thought the place had blown up. It was a city that went wild."

On March 25, 1942, WVU's Cinderella team won the National Invitation Tournament title in a three-game series that stunned the sports world. New York sportswriters heaped praise on the upstarts from West Virginia. Glowing accounts of the unbelievable victory appeared in top magazines across the country.

Ranked eighth in an eight-team tournament, the lowly Mountaineers started their storybook run with a shocking upset over top-ranked Long Island in the opening round on St. Patrick's Day. Long Island hadn't lost in 42 games, but they lost to WVU in overtime, 58-49.

"There wasn't any chance they were going to beat Long Island," Hugh Hicks said. "There just wasn't any way."

Pandemonium erupted in Morgantown. Students snaked through the streets until the wee hours. In a telegraph to the coach, loquacious Gov. Matthew M. Neely called the Mountaineers "the real General MacArthurs of the basketball world."

On March 23, the fired-up Mounties rallied in the second half to dispose of Toledo 51-39 and set up the showdown with favored Western Kentucky.

Seventy years later, the sweep to WVU's first national title remains one of the most fabled events in school history.

Before the rise of the NCAA, winning the NIT tournament was as good as it gets, Hugh Hicks said. "The NIT was the big tournament then. If you got invited to play in the NIT, you'd had a really good year."

Remembering Shorty Hicks

Hugh Hicks turns 90 on April 6. He lives in Kanawha City, long retired from his career as a state division manager with Aetna Insurance.

Dozens of mementos, including a 1942 Life magazine spread, keep details about the legendary team forever fresh in his mind.

In his dining room, hanging above his brother's portrait, a plaque commemorates the 2005 induction of Roger "Shorty" Hicks into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame. Family members went to Morgantown for the induction ceremonies.

The year his big brother played in the NIT, Hugh was a 20-year-old sophomore and one of three managers for the basketball team. Expense considerations kept him in Morgantown during the 1942 championship run.

The following year, as a full-fledged junior manager, he finally got to accompany the team to Madison Square Garden, where his brother had made WVU sports history.

The All-American Basketball Board named Shorty Hicks one of the country's 18 greatest college basketball players of the 1941-42 season. He also made the 1942 College All-Star Squad.

"Shorty could have played anywhere," his brother said. "He was a dead-set shooter."

A stellar student, he served as student body president, president of Phi Delta Theta, proctor of Men's Hall and coach of the freshman basketball team. He belonged to Mountain and Sphinx, men's honoraries.

As students together at WVU, Hugh accompanied Shorty to basketball practice. "The coach didn't come until 4, but Shorty and I would go to the Field House about 3:30. He would stand in a spot on the floor and shoot. I would stand under the basket and throw the ball back to him. I've seen him shoot 10 in a row without missing."

For 60 years, Shorty Hicks held the WVU free-throw percentage record, at 88 percent.

"Nobody from this team is still living," Hicks said. "Let me tell you about them."

Not many men

With so many young men off to fight in World War II, Coach R.A. "Dyke" Raese barely had enough players. Five regulars and three subs made up the team. "He took an extra sub to New York," Hicks said, "but Neil Montone wasn't even on the team.

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