If Huskymania can be traced to a single moment, it would probably be March 13, 1964, when UConn Huskies guard Dom Perno snatched the basketball from Princeton Tigers star Bill Bradley with 32 seconds left in the game.
The Huskies led 52-50 in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen playoff game. They held that lead for a shocking upset that sent their fans in Storrs into paroxysms of cheering, singing, weeping joy.
UConn had never before won two NCAA tournament games. A perhaps unspoken but no doubt understood source of joy was the Grabowski vs. Smith nature of the contest. Princeton was a bastion of elite privilege and a top-ranked team throughout the 1960s. The Tigers star was Bill Bradley, the son of a bank president and the best college player in the country. WASPy names filled the Tigers roster including not one but two Thirds: Sherwood Githen III and William J. Kingston III.
UConn was a state agricultural college, a powerhouse in the New England region, but a fairly weak region. The entire college offered 5-1/2 scholarships – academic only, and Huskies center Ed Slomcenski had one of them. UConn’s players all came from middle- and working–class cities and towns: Slomcenski from Naugatuck, Conn. Toby Kimball from Framingham, Mass., Dom Perno from New Haven and Dan ‘Spider’ Hesford from North Arlington, N.J., home of the Pizza Land restaurant featured in The Sopranos.
Huskies on the Rise
Starting in 1946, beloved head coach Hugh Greer transformed the UConn basketball program into a regional power. During his 16-year career, he compiled a 286-112 record and led the Huskies to six NCAA playoff berths. From the late ‘40s to the early ‘50s, Greer built the team with so few resources his wife had to scout for him.
A key victory for Greer’s Huskies came in 1954, when they upset undefeated Holy Cross, a perennial thorn in UConn’s side. From that day on, UConn and Holy Cross ranked as the two best teams in New England. But their competition – the universities of Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont – didn’t pose much of a challenge.
Local support grew for UConn basketball with the string of Husky victories under Hugh Greer and the radio voice of George Ehrlich. During the early 1950s, there was virtually no televised sports in Connecticut from the Rose Bowl to opening day for the Yankees and Red Sox. In 1956, WTIC in Hartford bought the rights to broadcast UConn games. George Ehrlich of WHAY in New Britain was then brought over to announce the game. People started to identify his voice with the rising UConn sports teams of the late 1950s and 1960s.
A New Coach
On Jan. 14, 1963, Hugh Greer died suddenly of a massive heart attack. The next season, 31-year-old Fred Shabel left his job as assistant coach at Duke to take Greer’s place.
The Huskies ended the 1963-64 season with a 15-10 record. On February 29, they lost by a point to the University of Rhode Island to tie the Yankee Championship. From then on, Shabel said, they were living on borrowed time
They beat Rhode Island at home to win the championship. Then the Huskies upset the heavily favored Temple University Owls at home in Philadelphia. On to Princeton and the Sweet Sixteen.
Princeton head coach Bill van Breda Kolff thought so little of UConn’s chances he didn’t bother to watch their game against Temple. When asked why, he said, “How good can a team be when it only scores in the 50s?”
His remark would prove unintentionally prescient.
‘Stolen By Perno’
When running for president of the United States in 2000, Bradley was asked about that Sweet Sixteen game when the Tigers lost to the Huskies.
“All I remember is that it was a bad game,” Bradley said. “I cannot remember the details, except it was a bad game.”
The detail Bradley probably wanted to forget was a “Havlicek stole the ball” moment. The score was tied when Perno was fouled. Perno wasn’t much of a shooter, but he sunk two free throws to bring the score to 52-50.
Husky guard Dan Hesford was called ‘Spider’ because of his long arms and legs and tendency to cling to whoever he defended. He clung to Bill Bradley throughout the game, keeping him to 22 points – well below the All-American’s 33.1 game point average. After Perno’s free throws, Bradley held the ball, distracted by Hesford. Here’s Ehrlich calling the play-by-play:
Over to Bradley…double-teamed, holds the ball … Stolen by Perno … Dom Perno steals from Bradley with 18 seconds to go. Perno dribbles to the right, holds the ball … over the Dellasala in the corner … 14 seconds to go … in the corner to Perno, now to Slomcenski … 10 seconds to go … in the corner now … 7 seconds, 6 seconds. Now to Kimball … feeds to Perno with 3 seconds – who shoots – no good … the rebound … there’s the gun … UConn has won 53-50. The Huskies go into the Finals of the East. Wow!!!!’
The Huskies took the same plane as Princeton to Raleigh, N.C., for the playoff game against Duke. Perno remembered seeing Bradley in the back of the plane, immersed in a book.
Princeton coach van Breda Kolff didn’t give the Huskies much of a chance to beat Duke. The Blue Devils had three times the speed and four times the shooting ability. They also had virtual home court advantage. And as Shabel pointed out, Duke had something else UConn didn’t: athletic scholarships.
Agony and Ecstasy
The Blue Devils crushed the Huskies, exhausted and drained from their victory over Princeton. The final score was a humiliating 101-54.
The flight home the next day was a long one. The players were devastated. But when their plane landed at Bradley Field in Hartford, a thousand cheering, singing, weeping fans greeted them.
They fought their way to the terminal for their bags. State police escorted their motorcade to Storrs, where another crowd gave them a roaring welcome. The Pep Band and cheerleaders were there, too, having left right after the Duke game and traveled for 14 hours by bus.
“UConn Team Given Roaring Welcome On Return From South,” blared the Hartford Courant headline. “The outpouring of fans clearly indicated the rebirth of spirit at the sprawling state university,” reported the newspaper.
Huskymania was in Storrs to stay.
With thanks to Hoop Tales: UConn Huskies Men’s Basketball by Wayne Normal and Robert S. Porter.
Images: Huskies logo By UCONN Logo Sheet, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52951279. This story updated in 2023.