1941 Cougars: One Of The Greatest

March 11, 2007

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a four-part series chronicling the Washington State men's basketball team's four trips to the NCAA Tournament in 1941, 1980, 1983 and 1994.

2007 will mark the fifth trip to the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship for Washington State. The Cougars were selected as the No. 3 seed in the East Region and will play No. 14 seed Oral Roberts in a first round game at Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 15.

Today's Feature: The 1941 men's basketball season still lives in Cougar lore. Picked to finish at the bottom of the conference standings, Washington State completed the 1940-41 season with a 26-6 record. The 26 wins still rank as the most in program history.

Sixty-six years later, the 1941 Washington State Cougars is not only remembered as one of the great men's basketball teams in school history, but as one of the greatest teams in any sport.

By Jason Krump
Washington State University Athletics

Heading into the 2006-07 season, the Washington State men's basketball team was picked to finish last in the Pacific-10 Conference by a panel of media members.

How the Cougars will conclude the 2006-07 campaign is still an unknown, but regardless of what happens, this season has become one of the most successful in school history.

A team possessing a major role in this history is the 1941 Cougars, a squad that has something in common with the 2006-07 Cougars.

The 1940-41 Cougars

Lightly respected heading into the 1941 season, the Cougars registered a season that remains one of most highly regarded of any Washington State athletic program.

In 1941, the Washington State College basketball team was projected to finish at the bottom of the Pacific Coast North Conference, a conference made up of the Cougars, Washington, Oregon State, Oregon and Idaho.

The season culminated with the Cougars winning a still standing school record 26 games, and advancing all the way to the national championship game, marking the second best season in Washington State history (national championship season of 1917).

An excerpt from Dick Fry's 1989 book about the history of Washington State University Athletics, The Crimson and the Gray states the 1941 Cougars possessed four seniors: Paul Lindeman, Dale Gentry, Ray Sundquist (captain), and Vern Butts; four juniors: Kirk Gebert, John Hooper, Jim Zimmerman, and Al Akins; and four sophomores: Marv Gilberg, Owen Hunt, Phil Mahan, and Chuck Dosskey.

The starting lineup featured the four seniors, including Lindeman, a 6-foot-7, 230 pound center who paced the Cougars in scoring with 326 points (10.2). Gentry and Butts were at the forward positions, while Sundquist and junior Gebert held down the guard positions. Head Coach Jack Friel, who consistently used 11 players in his 'rotation,' also incorporated the 6-foot-2 Gilberg as his 'sixth man' for Butts.

What was Friel's prediction for the Pacific Coast North for his Cougars entering the 1940-41 season?

'A good scrap between Oregon and Washington,' Friel said in the Nov. 20, 1940 Daily Evergreen. Friel, who was entering his 13th season as WSC head coach, went on to state that his Cougars and defending champion Oregon State would probably be weaker this year due to the graduation of first string men. The Cougars lost captains Jack Jennings and Bill Chase from the 1940 squad, a team that went 23-10 and finished third in the Pacific Coast North with a 9-7 record.

Friel went on to say that 'although we are weak on defense, the team has excellent spirit, and that is a big point in our favor.'

The Cougars opened the season in a spirited manner with six straight wins. In the seventh game of the season, the Cougars, with much of the team battling the flu, suffered their first loss of the year, 37-30, to Eastern Washington, Dec. 19.

WSC responded with three straight wins, which included avenging its defeat to Eastern with an emphatic 78-39 win, to head into the conference portion of the schedule with a 9-1 record.

The conference season started ominously, with two consecutive losses at Oregon State.

In the first game, WSC held a five-point lead with five minutes to play, and the game was tied at 39 with two minutes left; however, the Beavers scored the game's final six points to take a 45-39 win.

The second game was just as disheartening, if not more so, for the Cougars. Despite leading 26-10 at the half, the Cougars lost, 44-42, to Oregon State.

Friel said in the Evergreen that the Beavers looked good, both offensively and defensively, and expressed that Oregon State is a good, sound club. Amending his opinion from the beginning of the season, Friel went on to say that Oregon State has the best chance to run off with the title for the second consecutive year.

WSC rebounded from the defeats to take two from Oregon at Eugene before returning to the Palouse.

The wins at Oregon ended one streak and began another for the Cougars. Five more conference wins followed, improving the Cougars' record to 16-3. WSC hit a brief speed bump, a 47-37 loss to the AAU Signal Oil team at Longview, Feb. 11, but the conference winning streak, which had now stretched to seven games, was still alive and would be put at risk with a date at Washington on Valentine's Day.

The Cougars achieved a season sweep over Washington for the first time since the 1917 national championship team.

The streak extended to eight, and then nine, with a close 44-42 win over the Huskies, Feb. 14, and a more comfortable 39-31 win the following day.

With two wins secured over the Huskies, what had been unthinkable could now become a reality: a season sweep over Washington.

The last time the Cougars achieved a season sweep over their intrastate rival was in 1917, coincidentally the program's national championship season. Nearly a quarter century later, the Cougars found themselves with the opportunity to sweep Washington again as the teams met for back-to-back games, this time at Pullman, Feb. 21 and 22.

Before a near capacity crowd of 5,300 at Bohler Gym, WSC bested UW 50-38 to open the series. Seven minutes into the game, the score was tied at seven, but after that it was all WSC. The Cougars went into the break with a 27-18 advantage and were never threatened in the second half. Lindeman led the Cougars with 13 points.

The following day, the Cougars defeated Washington even more convincingly, 69-47, before 5,500 fans. WSC opened up a 15-point lead during the first 10 minutes and cruised the rest of the way. Lindeman, Butts, Gilberg, and Sundquist each scored 10 points to lead WSC.

The sweep over Washington extended the Cougars' conference win streak to 11 games. It would grow to a conference-record 13 wins with victories over Idaho and Oregon State. The 37-35 win over Idaho, March 1, clinched the Pacific Coast North title for WSC.

The streak finally came to an end with a 50-45 loss to the Beavers in the regular season finale. The Cougars' only three conference losses of the season came to Oregon State. Prior to the 1941 campaign, WSC had a 29-13 mark over the Beavers during Friel's time at Washington State.

At the conclusion of the regular season, the winner of the north played the champion of the south (Stanford, Southern California, California and UCLA) in a best two out of three series to determine the champion of the Pacific Coast Conference. In this case, the Cougars faced Stanford to determine the champion.

Washington State swept Stanford in the Pacific Coast Conference finals.

Playing at Pullman, Washington State found itself down at halftime of the first game, 20-13, playing with what the Chinook yearbook called 'a bad case of jitter-it is.' Those jitters evaporated in the second half as the Cougars rallied to capture the first game, 46-43.

The outcome was less in doubt in the second game. WSC jumped out to a 26-19 halftime lead en route to a 44-40 victory over Stanford, claiming the Pacific Coast Conference title and a berth to the NCAA Tournament that came with it.

In 1941, the NCAA Tournament was an East-West championship format. The NCAAs were at Kansas City, and the Cougars were joined by Arkansas, Wyoming and Creighton in the West bracket.

Led by 26 points from Lindeman, Washington State defeated Creighton 48-39 in the West semifinals, March 21. Facing Southwest Conference champion Arkansas in the West final the following evening, Washington State disposed of Arkansas, 64-53, to advance to the national championship game.

The Cougars handled Arkansas throughout, leading by as much as 20 at one point in the second half. Once again Lindeman led the scoring effort with 14 points. He was helped by Gebert and Butts, who scored 12 and 11 points, respectively.

The win earned WSC the title of West champions and propelled the Cougars into the NCAA championship game, once again at Kansas City, Mo., March 29 against the East champion Wisconsin Badgers.

In the championship game, Gebert scored 21 of WSC's 34 points in a 39-34 loss to the Badgers. Gebert connected on 10-of-24 field goals in the game. The Cougars trailed 21-17 at halftime and closed to within 24-22 early in the second half, but were never able to take the lead.

In The Crimson and the Gray, Friel is quoted as remembering that Wisconsin 'sagged on Lindeman, so we concentrated on our weave and tried to free up our outside shooters.'

'Gebert was the only one who hit well that night,' Friel recalled. 'It was tough to get the ball to Lindeman, but maybe we didn't do it enough.'

In spite of the loss to Wisconsin, the 1941 season lives in Cougar lore. Picked to finish at the bottom of the north conference, Washington State completed the 1940-41 season with a 26-6 record. The 26 wins still rank as the most in program history.

With 25 wins, the 2006-07 edition of the Cougars have a chance to tie the 1941 team's win total when they face Oral Roberts in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 15. If that happens, it would become just one more element these two historic Cougars teams would have in common.

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