The 1954-55 Williams basketball team opened the season with a school record 14 straight victories and opened the eyes of the NCAA Basketball Selection Committee, which later invited the Ephs to "The Big Dance" in March of 1955.
Back in 1955 there was no NCAA Division II or III tournament, there was just the NCAA Tournament.
The Williams Record [student paper] noted in its preseason outlook that coach Al Shaw had "assembled one of the finest groups in many years," led by seniors Tony Moro [6' 7"] and Ron Wilson [6' 5"].
The Ephs opened with wins over Union (80-64) and Hamilton (78-65) and then prepared to host New England power Rhode Island (URI). Shaw, who passed away at the age of 102 in December of 2009, noted a few years back that it was the URI game that really got folks attention. URI was averaging over 100 points a game and their running game was feared.
Shaw was one of the first coaches to scout opponents in person. "There's always something you can learn by being at a game and seeing a team play." Shaw saw that the Rams "liked to run up the floor with the ball, but they were not as quick to run back on defense, so I told the boys we were going to run both ways."
Here's how the Record saw the URI game on December 10, "playing the most spectacular brand of basketball ever seen in Lasell Gymnasium Coach Al Shaw's varsity hoopsters tonight made a tremendously successful debut into big time cage circles as they humbled highly touted University of Rhode Island, 107-75."
Tony Moro scored 38 and Ron Wilson tallied 23 of the school record 107 points. Williams never looked back after taking a 52-35 halftime lead.
After URI, Trinity (76-66), Hofstra (83-70), Bates (70-52), Bowdoin (84-56), Wesleyan (91-57), and UMass (77-57) fell before Dartmouth dared enter Lasell Gym on January 22nd. Again the Ephs played up to the level of their opponent and beyond in winning 67-48.
Coast Guard (88-66), Springfield (85-75), Vermont (82-65) and RPI (80-64) were the next to succumb to the Ephs, setting the stage for the undefeated Ephs to head to 13-4 Amherst.
While the Ephs were excited to have opened the year with 14 wins including impressive displays versus URI and Dartmouth they knew they would be in for a challenge when they traveled to face archrival Amherst on February 19.
In case you are new to the Williams-Amherst rivalry here's a simple explanation – there is no team Williams enjoys beating more than Amherst. There is no win they would not trade to offset a loss to Amherst. That's the kind of rivalry you get when your archrival arose out of a defection of the president, faculty, students, and staff in 1821, providing Williams the opportunity to establish the world's first college alumni society and save the college.
The significance of the Amherst game was laid out in the "As I See It" column in the February 16 Williams Record three days prior to the contest.
"Al Shaw's varsity quintet has done more for Williams than any other group in recent years. A powerhouse basketball team affects many aspects of college life. But the key service of this year's Shawmen to Williams is the fact that this one athletic team has united that strange ambiguous group that some have labeled "the Williams family."
"Anyone who was in Lasell Gymnasium the night of the Dartmouth game saw the united spirit of Williams in one of its wilder moments… But the spirit at the games fails to tell the tale. Alumni, parents and friends of the college throughout the country have either renewed or gained a loyalty to the Berkshire valley. This group of Eph alumni and friends has been very forceful in correcting big-city newsmen who have made the statement that there are no undefeated basketball teams remaining in the country. Both Irving Marsh of the New York Herald Tribune and Bill Roeder of the New York World-Telegram and Sun have felt the blows of experienced Ephmen…
"The Purple cagers have established themselves as one of the selected few who are being considered for both of the major post-season tournaments [NIT and NCAA]."
"After rolling to fourteen straight victories, the Shawmen have arrived at the game that the "Williams family" still considers "the big one."
"Williams owes a lot to this year's Shawmen, a team that has brought the college favorable publicity on a nationwide scale. Students, faculty, and alumni and friends owe a lot to the group that has united "the Williams family." Shawmen if this season brings an undefeated team and post-season competition with the nation's best, Williams will praise and salute you. But Saturday night at Amherst, the big one will be played. Shawmen this one you owe to Williams."
Amherst won 68-60 by clogging the lane with their zone defense and forcing the Ephs to shoot from the outside. Williams only hit on 29.4% of their shots.
Amherst turned a Williams 47-43 second half lead into a 55-49 lead with a 12-2 run. In Williamstown that one loss felt more like 14 losses. The only consolation prize from the trip to Amherst was that the Lord Jeffs would be coming to Williamstown on March 5th.
The line of more than 1,000 fans not able to get into Lasell Gym for the re-match with Amherst stretched from the front entrance of Lasell all the way down Spring Street to the Post Office.
Officially 1,200 fans were listed to be in Lasell Gym, but there were many more than that as Al Shaw left his office window unlocked so students could climb in and squeeze their way onto the running track above the floor.
Even with Lasell Gym as packed, as it could be, Amherst surprisingly held a 7-point lead at the half, but Wally Jensen, Ron Wilson and Tony Moro keyed an Eph comeback. With the score tied at 45 Ron Wilson made two free throws and scored on a put back and Williams took a 49-45 lead it would not relinquish, winning 53-48 and claiming the Little Three title.
Lost in all the excitement around the upcoming Amherst game was a small story on the front page of the February 16 Record:
NCAA Bid Near; UConn gets NIT
"Coach Al Shaw was holding basketball practice when the news was brought to him. His face broke into a wide smile and he called the team over to read the UP story that had come in over the WMS [student station] wires. The team reacted enthusiastically as they went on with their practice."
Now you might think that getting a bid to "The Big Dance" would not require a vote of the faculty before it could be accepted with how the NCAA tournaments are presently constructed, but that was not how things were done at Williams in 1955.
A vote by the faculty in favor of accepting the NCAA bid was required. Professor Vince Barnett told the Record that in accepting the NCAA bid it was not a blanket endorsement and the faculty "would in the future view every case on its own merits."
"The main argument in favor of accepting the bid was that the members of the team are good responsible citizens of school life and are good students."
Against – "Time would be taken away from the studies of the not only the members of the team but also from the members of the student body who would follow the team to New York to watch the game."
With the blessing of the Williams faculty the Ephs lined against Canisius College in a First Round game on March 8th in Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Ephs held their own for most of the contest, until Canisius pulled ahead late to win 73-60 and the Ephs finished the year at 17-2.
Tony Moro kept the Ephs in the game in the first half with 12 points, 12 rebounds and occasionally running the offense. Canisius led at the break 30-25.
Moro scored 10 straight for the Ephs tying the game at 55. When Bob Buss hit two free throws to pull the Ephs within two, 59-57, Canisius went into a stall and forced the Ephs to foul resulting in a 14-3 Canisius run.
Moro finished with 27 points and 17 rebounds and Ron Wilson's 18 points left him six short of 1,000 in his career.
The 1954-55 Ephs were the first Williams basketball team to go to the NCAA Tournament. The 1958-59 Ephs played in the NCAA Small College Tournament (now Division II) and the Ephs qualified for the NCAA Division III Tournament in 1994, making Williams one of the few schools to have competed in all three NCAA Tournaments.
Still 'dancing' the 1997, 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2010 Ephs all advanced to the NCAA Division III Final Four and Williams became the first New England team to win the NCAA title in 2003.