BELOIT—Seems like whatever sports channel you tune in these days they’re filling air time with rebroadcasts of classic games.
Great finishes. Huge upsets. Intense rivalries. It’s a sports fan’s smorgasbord.
My favorites, though, tend to be local matchups and there’s one in particular that always stands out. It involved a Beloit Memorial boys basketball team facing seemingly insurmountable odds and pulling off a stunning 27-26 upset of the No. 1-ranked team in Wisconsin.
Yes, 27-26, and this wasn’t in the Roaring Twenties. Not to mention the top-ranked team, averaging 70.5 points per game, happened to be arch-rival Janesville Craig.
It occured on a Friday night, Jan. 27, 1984 in a packed Barkin Arena. And it looked like no contest even before Beloit’s leading scorer and rebounder, Randy Cousins, came down with chicken pox.
“When I learned Randy wouldn’t be available we had a team meeting,” Beloit head coach Gene Van Galder remembers. “I swore them to secrecy. They couldn’t tell their parents. They couldn’t tell their girl friends.”
What was the big secret? Beloit’s game plan was to to simply take the air out of the ball. Stall and stall some more, at least until the fourth quarter.
“It seldom works because the team doing it gets behind and abandons it,” Van Galder said. “Fortunately, I had a team that bought-in and carried it out. I really think the slow down surprised Janesville Craig. They were used to firing it up and to have this absolute delay really frustrated them. They had to be more deliberate themselves because they weren’t getting as many shots.”
The Cougars attempted only three shots in the first quarter and were held scoreless. Beloit’s John Gordon, Darryl Grundy, Chris Listenbee, Gary Olson and Robert Hamilton held the ball for close to 7 ½ minutes of the 8-minute quarter. Listenbee’s basket with 4:05 left and Olson’s two free throws with 31 seconds remaining gave Beloit a 4-0 lead.
“We had our minds made up to stall,” Beloit’s Gordon said afterward. “We just wanted to keep it close and take them out of their game.”
Craig came to life in the second quarter. Tracy Marshall’s jumper just before halftime put the Cougars on top 10-7.
The Purple Knights went scoreless in the third quarter, but Craig added just two baskets to lead 14-7 heading to the fourth quarter. They weren’t ahead, but they had accomplished their mission.
“We planned all along to hold the ball until the fourth quarter and then play with them,” Van Galder said. “We just want to miniaturize the game so it ended up being decided in the final six or seven minutes. Sometimes the team that isn’t as good plays great in that time and wins.”
Beloit scrapped the stall and didn’t panic. Grundy scored on a fastbreak and Listenbee pulled the Knights within 14-12 on a three-point play. Beloit tied the game, 22-all, on Listenbee’s putback with 2:17 left.
Marshall handed the lead back to Craig with a jumper with 1:54 left. Mike Hemming and Kevin Kaufman then hit the front end of one-and-ones to extend the lead to 26-22 with just 39 seconds to play.
Hamilton’s long jumper pulled Beloit within a basket, 26-24, eight seconds later. Craig inbounded the ball and Grundy stole it at halfcourt and passed to Listenbee. He drove in, drew a foul and scooped up a shot that miraculously went through the net.
“I’ve got a pretty soft shooting touch,” Listenbee said afterward.
His free throw bounced high and then dropped in to put Beloit in front, 27-26. Craig hurried the ball to midcourt and called timeout with 8 seconds left. The Cougars went to Kaufman for an open jumper near the free-throw line. His shot bounced off the rim and Gordon corralled it just before the final buzzer sounded. Beloit improved to 6-4 in the Big Eight.
“This is the first time we beat Janesville Craig,” Gordon said, citing losses back to playing Janesville Marshall Junior High. “They’ve been kicking our fannies for years.”
Van Galder, who had previously coached at Parker and still lived in Janesville, worried about the reaction to Beloit’s stall, which handed the Cougars their first loss in 13 games.
“After the game (long-time Janesville Gazette Sports Editor) Dave Wedeward stopped in our locker room,” Van Galder said. “He had been a proponent of mine and had a lot to do with me getting the Parker job. He came in so upset. He said, ‘Just what do you think you are doing?’ I said, ‘Dave, I’m trying to win a basketball game against a very good team.’
“I called my wife Connie and told her to turn off the lights and pull down the shades. I don’t think anyone in Janesville is going to be happy with Gene Van Galder.”
He was pleasantly surprised by the reaction, even in Janesville.
“To be honest, it was the opposite of what I expected,” he said. “A lot of people were giving me praise for how well we played and how disciplined we were. They talk a lot about putting in a shot clock in high school games. If we had one, that game never would have happened and that was one of the most exciting games I was ever a part of.”
I agree. I think the lead on my story summed up me feelings: “If you’re a Beloit Memorial High basketball fan, you believe in miracles. If you’re a Beloit Memorial player, you perform them.”