Fond memories of Flash at Jaffa

The Saint Francis Red Flash returned to the NIT for the first time in over 60 years this March, playing a solid game against one of the most storied programs in college basketball.

It may prompt old time Flash fans to recall the near misses a decade after their last appearance in 1958.

Norm Van Lier and Larry Lewis landed in Loretto in 1965, the memory of Maurice Stokes and NIT victories of the mid-1950s still fresh in the minds of many Saint Francis College basketball fans.

I can’t recall who they played the night I was there for my first Frankie game at the Jaffa Mosque (now known as the Jaffa Shrine Center) with Stormin’ Norman and Mugsy two years later.

But I can still recall the exact seat I was sitting in: Section D, Row 3, third seat in from the end, next to my Aunt Bernadette, close enough to the Shriners’ concession stand you could smell the hot dogs.

After a 20-win season during Van Lier’s sophomore year — he spelled his name Vanlier then — expectations were even higher for the 1967-68 season. The only senior starter from the ’66-67 squad, guard Bill Coyle, returned to serve as an assistant to head coach John Clark.

One of the reasons folks were excited about the season was the supporting cast around Van Lier and Lewis. Sophomore southpaw sharpshooter Bill Snodgrass was poised to replace Coyle and forward Lenny Murray had enjoyed a superb season the year before. Sam Harris, a 6-foot-8 senior (who was the team’s leading scorer his sophomore year) and guard John Penwell (who had lit up Arizona with 23 points the previous season) and the scrappy John Kerr gave them size and depth the small college seldom enjoyed.

After losing on the road to Duquesne and Western Kentucky in early December, the Flash would go through the rest of January and much of February losing only to fifth-ranked, undefeated Saint Bonaventure and their All-American center, Bob Lanier, on the road.

During that stretch, they avenged the loss to Duquesne at a Christmas tournament and beat Saint Peters (which would finish fourth in the NIT) by 10 at the Mosque.

When they won back-to-back games against Eastern Kentucky (and NBA-bound Garfield Smith) and Saint Joe’s, it set up a rubber match with Duquesne.

The winner was almost certain to get an NIT bid (equivalent to getting in the NCAA tournament today) as a lower seed. The loser would likely be done.

The Frankies opened up an eight-point lead with 13 minutes to go, but the Dukes’ Ron Guziak was nearly unstoppable, scoring 50 points on 24-of-35 shooting from the field. Despite 35 points from Van Lier, Duquesne held on, 109-103, ending a 22-game home win streak win at the Jaffa.

It may still be the most amazing game I’ve witnessed in my entire life.

With 6-foot-10 Mike Copeland poised to take Murray’s spot in the starting lineup in 1968-69, Saint Francis lined up what might have been its most ambitious schedule ever. It had five games against ranked teams and flew across the country for a two-game road trip against Montana and Brigham Young.

Though competitive, the Flash could not get over the top and lost all five to the ranked teams, the most disappointing a 107-95 loss to Ken Durrett and LaSalle before a standing-room crowd at the Mosque. Ineligible for the NCAA tournament, Tom Gola’s Explorers would end up 23-1 and No. 2 in the national rankings to UCLA.

The Saint Francis win was among their five tightest games of the season.

The Flash scored over 100 in three games against non-Division I teams, but lost to three respectable but unranked Division I teams down the stretch.

Though disappointed that the tough losses meant the postseason would elude them yet again, it could not detract from the three years of electrifying basketball, capacity crowds and battles against the nation’s best.

The images remain with me half a century later — a Snodgrass’ swish from the corner, Van Lier dishing to Murray on the baseline, Mugsy muscling underneath to grab another offensive rebound.

It was, appropriately, a grand show in a grand theatre.

John Frederick (www.johnjfrederick.com), known more for his Earth Matters columns in the Wednesday Mirror, also periodically contributes sports reflections.