Get the Ball to Ernie

Jan. 21, 2010

Richard PaigeArizona Athletic Media Relations

Entering the 1959-60 season, the plan was simple: get the ball to Ernie.

The Ernie in question was Ernie McCray, a Tucson native who prepped at Tucson High School and practically grew up on the UA campus.

At 6-foot-6 and 185 pounds, McCray was by almost all accounts a tall and slender center who happened to be blessed with long limbs and big hands.

'Ernie was a long, tall, skinny guy,' said teammate Jon Conner. 'He was a center who had pretty good height and good skills. On our team, obviously, he was the best scorer.'

McCray averaged 15.9 points and 9.8 rebounds per game as a junior in earning second-team all-Border Conference honors in 1959. In 1960, those figures jumped to 23.9 points and 12.2 rebounds.

According to then-Wildcat assistant coach Bruce Larson, legendary UA mentor Fred A. Enke knew that McCray would be the focal point for the 1960 Cats.

'The team we had didn't have much outside shooting ability,' chuckled Larson. 'That's what Coach Enke used to stress, `Get the ball to Ernie.' He should have touched the ball on every possession.'

That message wasn't lost on any member of the team, including the newcomers, who learned quickly of what the team's first option would be.

Marv Dutt's first year as a Wildcat came in 1960. A transfer from Bismarck (N.D.) Junior College, he learned quickly that everything started with Ernie.

'When I got there, the coaches told me to do three things,' said Dutt, '`We want you to rebound, play defense and get the ball to Ernie. So I got the message pretty quickly.

'One of the things that I learned very quickly was to get the ball to Ernie because he could make it happen,' he continued. 'He was a good ball player, so smart and smooth. He was an amazing guy.'

That simple philosophy - get the ball to Ernie - and the willingness of 16 teammates to follow it, set the stage for one of the most remarkable performances in Arizona basketball history.

Fifty years ago next month - Feb. 6, 1960, to be exact - Ernie McCray set the UA single-game scoring record with 46 points in a 104-84 win over Cal State-Los Angeles.

'He was our go-to guy'

While not the tallest post player, Larson says that McCray used his physical attributes to separate himself from opponents. Often times literally.

McCray connected on 16-of-26 field goals and 14-of-16 free throws in his record-setting night.

'He had long arms and legs,' Larson said. 'He could get a shot off against anyone. And he could really run the court. Ernie could beat any post player down the court.'

McCray relied primarily on a hook shot and a high-arcing jump shot to beat defenders. He led Arizona in field goal percentage as both a junior and senior. And when he got going, he was tough to stop.

'His shot was one where it had a high arc to it,' remembered Connor, a native of Phoenix who is now retired in Prescott. 'It was a beautiful shot, and when he was in that zone from 15 feet and in, he was terrific. He was our guy, our go-to guy, no question about it.

'Thinking back, I don't know that he missed that many shots that night,' Connor said.

He certainly didn't.

McCray connected on 16-of-26 field goal attempts and an impressive 14-of-16 from the free throw line. It all adds up to a 46-point effort that has been unmatched in UA annals for 50 years.

What makes the effort even more remarkable is the fact that McCray wasn't a stellar free-throw shooter. He made just 51.2 percent of his charity tosses as a junior and improved that to 68.9 percent as a senior.

'He just wasn't a great free-throw shooter,' said Larson, as he held the official scorer's report from the game, 'but he made nearly all of his free throws. Well, I guess you could say that made the difference.'

Dutt recalled simply, 'Everything just clicked.'

McCray himself just remembers being hot.

'We didn't use the term `in the zone' then, but I just remember getting hot,' he said. 'What I recall is that I see myself in a zone. I wasn't aware of anything else in the world, which is pretty much the kind of place you put your mind when something that special happens in sports. It was just one of those nights.'

To Dutt, what jumps out is the fact that the effort was all according to that simple plan laid out by Enke and Larson: get the ball to Ernie.

'It was all in the flow of the game,' said Dutt, a multi-sport athlete who went on to play seven seasons of professional baseball in the Houston Colt 45s organization. 'Everything just fell into place for us. Rebounds were coming our way. Everybody was clicking and Ernie just kept putting the ball in the basket. We kept applying the pressure and Ernie kept putting in the basket. It almost became a routine that night.'

A routine like that certainly played to McCray's. In addition to his 46 points that night, McCray also grabbed 14 rebounds. He just liked the ball in his hands.

'I loved rebounding. I loved to get the ball. I had a philosophy that if you had the ball, you had a better chance of scoring,' he said before trailing off in laughter.

'I wasn't firing them up that night with that in mind,' McCray continued. 'I just got hot and the guys kept feeding me the ball. I really love all of the guys I played with. They were great teammates.'

Conner says the feeling was mutual. 'You like to feed a guy who could do something with the ball,' he quipped.

'I have quite a few points here'

Did McCray know he was capable of such a performance? Nope. Setting that kind of record was the stuff of legends in his mind.

'No, I'd never thought of anything like that,' McCray said. 'Records...I didn't have a thorough concept of records back then. We thought of Babe Ruth and Jesse Owens and guys like that. I never went into a game thinking of doing this or that.'

However, most players know when they are having a good night. McCray was no different. As the points added up, it did get him to thinking.

'The 46 (points), you do kind of add it up in your mind,' he said. 'I was thinking, `God, I have quite a few points here,' but after the game people were just going wild with a standing ovation. They handed me the ball and I didn't know what was going on.'

That moment was shared by Dutt as well.

'At no one point during that game did we know what was happening,' said Dutt, 'just that we were clicking and doing well and winning big time. After the game, and after the announcements of how many points he did have, everybody started mobbing him. It was quite a scene.'

Now a half-century later, McCray still feels like he is in that zone when it comes to the record. Certainly, he can look to it with pride, but how long it will last is out of his hands. Perhaps now, he enjoys being linked to something special.

'I feel more a sense of fun than pride,' said McCray, a retired principal in San Diego who dabbles in community theater and community activism. 'I'm proud of it, but it's something that you do and then you have no control over what happens. Now, I still get a little attention for it. It's nice to have your name mentioned in the modern time. I feel good about that. What's kept the record alive all these years is the fact that they've had so many good players and great teams.'

Over the years, the record has been approached, but never toppled. Joe Skaisgir scored 44 points in 1962. Coniel Norman matched that in 1974, and Damon Stoudamire posted 45 points in 1995.

More recently, Jerryd Bayless scored 39 points in a February 2008 effort that included 26 first-half points. McCray was watching on television in San Diego and rooting for Bayless to break it.

'I like that it's mine, but if it's broken, I won't shed a tear,' he said. 'I'll tell you what. I was rooting for Bayless to break it a couple of years ago. The first half he was absolutely on fire. I called my wife into the room and told her, `Babe, I think the record is going to go down today.''

With the numbers of great players to come through the program in the last five decades, it is somewhat surprising that it has stood for nearly 1,500 games. 'When you think of all of the great players who have played in the program in the last 30 years, it's a pretty memorable accomplishment,' said Larson. 'You just don't get those kinds of scoring explosions very often.'

McCray also notched a double-double with 14 rebounds that evening.

His teammates also feel good about their roles in a historic achievement.

'I'm really proud to have been a part of that game and to have played with Ernie,' said Dutt. 'I guess it's just sinking in now what we were able to do. To be a part of that team and of that effort was great. In a small way it was our success, too.'

The 1959-60 Wildcats held a reunion back in January. A handful of team members were able to attend, but McCray was not. He did, however, send along a letter to his teammates, part of which read:

On February 6, that record will be a half century old. For me, that was a night that glittered like gold, forever etched in my soul. It took each fraction of our efforts to make it a whole...Wow, has it really been 50 years since we were tearing it up back in old Bear Down Gym? I remember it being fun playing a game you love. And to share that experience with you guys was icing on the cake.

The simple joy in that long ago effort isn't lost on the former principal. He said, 'A lot of my greatest moments in life have come surrounded by children - like the time I scored 46 points - it was just us kids having fun playing ball.'

Click Here for the Feb. 6, 1960, Boxscore in PDF Format Get Acrobat Reader

This story will run in the Feb. 11-13 edition of the Arizona men's basketball game program.

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