The shot, the foul were difference in title gameJune 16, 2020
By GREG ECKERLE
Special to The Herald
Jasper’s 1972 basketball regional champions wrote some of the more memorable lines into the Wildcats’ rich athletic history.
The two crucial plays in the dramatic regional championship victory over the rival Loogootee Lions were delivered by the poetically-nicknamed duo of Slick and Nick.
Dave “Slick” Webber nailed one of the program’s most-remembered shots, a 25-foot bomb with 17 seconds left, to put the Cats ahead, 57-56.
On the Lions’ next possession, Tommy “Nick” Nicholson, in arguably Jasper’s savviest defensive play ever, drew a charging foul on Brian Canada with six seconds remaining. While running into Nicholson, Canada had passed the ball to a wide-open Steve Bea
sley under the basket, but his lay-in was nullified by the charging call.
In the ensuing timeout, Jasper coach Ed Schultheis set up a play to spring Webber open for an inbounds pass from Al Seng. Webber was fouled with four seconds left and calmly sank both free throws for a 59-56 Jasper lead. A Lion basket at the buzzer made the final 59-58.
Jasper’s four senior starters — guards Webber and Kevin Manley, and forwards Nicholson and Seng — had never beaten a Loogootee team, though they had been trying since the seventh grade. The Lions were in the midst of an incredible run, being the two-time defending regional champions, and having gone to the state finals in 1970 and later earning a state runner-up finish in 1975.
During the 1972 regular season, Loogootee had even dealt Jasper a rare home loss, 69-67, at historic Cabby O’Neill Gymnasium.
In the locker room after that loss, Webber distinctly remembered the sound of the Loogootee fans’ stomping feet in the stands above the Wildcats, celebrating the Lions’ victory. And Webber especially recalled Coach Schultheis’ only comments to the team: “Boys, do you hear that? That’s what it means to beat Jasper in our home gym.”
Sophomore center Mike Luegers, the other Jasper starter, poured in 24 points in that game. According to assistant coach Rex May, one of the keys to the team’s later success was the seniors “accepting Luegers as a sophomore. Not all seniors would do that, so that was a big honor for him. He had some ability.”
Hampered by injuries, Jasper struggled to an 11-9 regular-season record. But an impressive late-season road victory at New Albany, 65-63, served notice of the Wildcats’ talent. The final two minutes of the game were even broadcast over the loudspeakers at the Saturday night dance at The Rustic in Jasper. The 6’3” Nicholson, returning from an ankle injury, torched the Bulldogs for 25 points. New Albany won the state championship the next year, in 1973, but their star 6’8” center, Charlie Mitchell, long remembered the Wildcats. Manley met him at a Louisville golf show in 2014 and recalled Mitchell saying, “Mike Luegers was one of the toughest guys, and that Nicholson was out of his head that night (in 1972).”
Nicholson turned a lot of heads with his jumping ability. In 1971, the team had purchased a rebounding machine that could be raised to different heights for rebounding and tip drills. Nicholson could grab rebounds at a height of 10’8” and soar to tips at 11’2”, both team highs by far. The marks so impressed coaches that they tape measured the heights to ensure they were correct. Schultheis immediately gave the game’s starting tip-off job to Nicholson. Routinely jumping against taller players, some as tall as 6’9”, Nicholson never lost a tip in his high school career. In a 2005 interview, Schultheis said, “Nicholson might have been the best jumper we’ve had in Jasper.”
Jasper easily won the Huntingburg sectional. They beat a good Orleans team in the regional’s first game, 77-71, that featured a future University of Louisville player, Curt Gilstrap. Luegers had to battle the flu, but Nicholson and Manley posted career highs of 31 and 28 points, respectively, to lead the way. “Manley was just hotter than fire,” said Seng, who was the team’s defensive stopper. “You give him a second to eyeball the rim, and he was pretty deadly. It would have been interesting if we had the three-point line back then. Webber and Manley were such great outside shooters and so many of their shots came from well beyond the three-point line.”
Next up for Jasper was the rematch with Loogootee and its Hall of Fame coach, Jack Butcher, who led the Lions for 45 years and is second on Indiana’s all-time win list. There was some concern whether Luegers would be well enough to play, but in a remarkable statistic, all five Jasper starters played every minute of both regional games, with no substitutions. As May simply explained later, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” Schultheis said, “Players were doing what we wanted, nobody was doing crazy things.” Seng didn’t recall getting tired “because the adrenaline was just so high that whole game. We were thrilled to have one more shot at Loogootee, we wanted that one really bad.”
In the third quarter, Seng was disgusted after having missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw. After getting fouled again, he threw a towel down by the bench. May asked what was wrong, and Seng replied that he couldn’t hit a free throw. May said he’d make these two, which Seng did. “Afterwards, I looked over at Rex and grinned at him, and he gave me a little fist pump,” Seng said. “A Loogootee player thought I was looking at him and asked me what I was smiling about. I said, ‘We’re going to beat you guys.’ He said something like ‘you wish’ or ‘you might ever.’ It was a quick exchange that was kind of funny.”
There were eight lead changes in the fourth quarter, turning the gym into a madhouse. “There was a lot of pressure, and it was unbelievably loud,” Manley says. “You could be 12 feet from a teammate and not hear a word he said.”
As for Webber’s legendary bomb with 17 seconds left, it was a shot from the wing that he had practiced for endless hours alone in the Jasper gym. He had passed the ball into Luegers, who kicked it back out to Webber. “I’m on the wing, where I like to be,” Webber recalled. “My defender was off me quite a bit, and I thought, this is me, this is what I do, and fortunately for me, the shot went in. I was confident, I wasn’t nervous.”
For Webber to score Jasper’s last four points was the supreme irony, because his father, Howard, was a Loogootee graduate and a close friend of Jack Butcher. As a grade schooler, Webber had gone with his dad several times to visit Butcher in a Loogootee gym, where Slick practiced shooting while Howard and Butcher socialized. Butcher even took time out to provide Slick with some shooting advice.
After his 1972 marksmanship, Webber didn’t meet up with Butcher again until right before the 1996 regional title game, when Jasper again played Butcher’s Lions. Webber admired Butcher so much that he approached the coach while he was watching his team warm up. “I said, ‘Jack, good luck to you, you probably don’t remember me, I’m Slick Webber.’ Butcher points out to the floor and said, ‘Yeah, I remember you, you hit one from right there that beat me in 1972.’”
Webber visited Butcher again at his Loogootee home in 2012. When I asked Butcher of his memories of Webber’s shot in the regional, Butcher replied, “Which one? Seemed to me he was always throwing one up. They were NBA three-point-plus, and I did my best to try to get my players to go out and cover him. Like my son Bill said, ‘there’s no way he’s going to shoot this far out.’” Butcher then laughed, knowing Webber did, and hit six of them.
The other legendary — and endlessly debated — play was the charging foul Nicholson drew on Canada with six seconds left. Loogootee fans still insist it wasn’t a true foul. Jasper players feel otherwise. “Nick was on the left side of the free throw line and I was on the right side,” Manley says, “and Canada came barreling down the middle and definitely charged into Nick. I was about five feet away.”
“I was down low guarding Dave Hawkins on that last play,” Seng says, “and I started to come up, too, when Nick took the charge. If we hadn’t gotten that call, we would have lost.”
Canada, now retired and living in Florida, said in a phone interview, “I probably failed in executing well, because I didn’t go to the center, I stayed a little bit left. I didn’t touch Nicholson, but I had lost my balance as I was passing the ball, which is unacceptable. I tripped on my own feet, and went forward a bit. Tom acted like I charged him. He did a great job in performing that one. I would have done the same thing.” Later in the interview, Canada said, “If I did touch him, it was a glance, but kudos to Tom, because he sold it.”
Nicholson was initially guarding Beasley, but had to leave him to go confront the driving Canada. “It wasn’t like he pummeled me,” Nicholson says, “but there was contact. I helped it a little bit. It was borderline, but more in our favor. He did run into me. I’d have to call it legitimate. According to the referee, it was clean, he called it.”
Both referees are deceased. Each showed their ability by the number of tournaments they officiated. John Ward worked 16 sectionals, 11 regionals, five semi-states and the 1974 state final. Harold Gray officiated 20 sectionals, 12 regionals and one semi-state.
The ensuing celebration in Jasper, with streets lined with fans, was as memorable as the game. Webber, who was in Schultheis’s car returning from Washington with the other starters, remembers traffic being backed up from Jasper to the turnoff for the Ireland Sportsman’s Club. The police found the Jasper team there and gave them an escort to the Courthouse Square, which Nicholson recalled being packed “like the Strassenfest.”
Webber returned to his parents’ house that night to find a three-piece band playing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” in a basement party. That was a much-requested song at radio station WITZ the next day. “My kids and I enjoyed that,” Schultheis recalled.
Nicholson had a lot of fun over the years playing coy when asked about the controversial charging call. He worked part-time at a local factory, where Loogootee employees continually brought it up. Nicholson delighted in placing his hand behind his head, just like the charging call, and walking away.
Although the 1972 Cats were serious at the right time, they enjoyed themselves, too. Nicholson was always up to something, including pulling himself up to sit atop the rim at one practice. And Webber was quick with a quip. Spotting one preseason magazine headline of “Aces gone, Jasper looks to rebuild,” referring to the Wildcats losing three talented starters to graduation, Webber simply said to his teammates, “Well, the Aces may be gone, but the Jokers are still here.”
And the four senior starters still enjoy socializing together, meeting through the years for dinners and golf outings. “We are all still close friends. I think that says something,” Manley says.
Greg Eckerle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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