ST. LOUIS – Mr. K-State, Ernie Barrett, has been waiting 63 years for this.
“When I found out who we were playing in the NCAA Tournament, I called (Bruce) Weber and told him I was really pleased we were playing Kentucky,” Barrett said. “Excited that we were going to have another chance at them.”
Barrett’s chance against Kentucky came in the 1951 national championship game in Minneapolis. K-State had drubbed Oklahoma A&M 68-44 in the semifinals in Kansas City. It looked like the Wildcats’ year.
And it was. The year for the Kentucky Wildcats.
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UK won the championship in ’51, using a big second half from 7-foot center Bill Spivey to beat Kansas State 68-58. And Barrett, a second-team All-American that season, has been steaming about it since. Barrett would like to see K-State beat Kentucky just once in his lifetime.
“We’ve played them eight times and never won,” Barrett said. “We almost beat them a couple of times.”
It’s hard for Barrett or anyone who played in that game to remember many of the details.
Former Kentucky stars Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, two of the finest players in the history of college basketball, do have one vivid memory of that cold Tuesday night in Minneapolis. But it has nothing to do with the game.
“We couldn’t get out of Minneapolis to get back home to Lexington,” said Hagan, who splits his time between Lexington and Vero Beach, Fla. “I remember we had to take a train to Chicago or something and got home a day late. I can’t remember why. I’m sure it was some kind of storm, probably snow.”
Wichitan John Hughes was a young K-State student at the time and he drove with four fraternity brothers to Minneapolis for the championship game.
“It was before interstates, so we were on some pretty bad sections of road,” Hughes said. “We drove all night the night before.”
Once inside the Minnesota Fieldhouse, now Williams Arena and still home for University of Minnesota basketball, Hughes and his buddies approached a woman sitting at a ticket booth. He was alone.
“We asked if it was possible to get tickets for the game,” Hughes said. “She said, literally, where would you like to sit?”
Hughes said he and his buddies were among 6,000 or so in the building that Tuesday night. Three nights earlier, more than 11,000 had jammed into Memorial Coliseum in Kansas City to see K-State beat Oklahoma A&M.
Kansas State led Kentucky 29-27 at halftime even though Barrett was struggling with a shoulder injury he suffered in the Oklahoma A&M game.
“I couldn’t raise my arm at all,” the 84-year-old Barrett said. “Novocaine was not authorized in those days because I tried to get our coach, Jack Gardner, to shoot me up. He said he didn’t know much about Novocaine and that he’d hate to ruin my future or any of that business.”
Barrett started for Kansas State but was ineffective. He scored four points on 2-of-12 shooting.
It probably wouldn’t have mattered because in the second half K-State had no answer for the 7-foot Spivey, who finished with 22 points and 21.
“Kansas State’s big man, Lew Hitch, was outplaying Spivey,” Hagan said. “At halftime, Coach (Adolph) Rupp (from Halstead) read him the riot act and Bill came out in the second half ready to go.”
Hagan, a sophomore on the 1951 team who would later was a two-time All-American and a star player for the St. Louis Hawks in the NBA, said he was under the weather for the championship game, too.
“I had a fever, a flu or something,” Hagan said. “So I didn’t start the game. And Adolph kept asking our assistant coach how I was doing, ‘How’s Hagan?’ At some point they told him my temperature was just right, so they sent me in.”
Ramsey, later a college All-American and NBA standout with the Boston Celtics, also had a tough time remember too many of the details about the game. Like Hagan, though, he recalled the difficulty the team had getting home.
“One thing I do know is that the basketball floor up there in Minneapolis was put over dirt,” Ramsey said. “Because we had to wipe our feet off when we went from the dressing room into the Fieldhouse and on that floor. And it was cold as the dickens up there.”
Ramsey, who still lives in his Kentucky childhood home of Madisonville, said he and Hagan still see one another often and follow Kentucky basketball closely.
“We have a lot of individual talent on this year’s team,” Ramsey said. “But a lot of freshmen. When we went to Kentucky, freshmen could not play on the varsity. We needed the time to acclimate and to learn how to be away from home. A lot of us were from small Kentucky towns and we had to get our grades. We went to Kentucky not so much to play basketball but to get an education.
“My point is that it’s a completely different atmosphere now because you couldn’t make this kind of money then playing pro ball.”
Neither Hagan nor Ramsey have spent much time with Barrett since that night almost 63 years ago, they said. And none of the three are sure whether they’ll be in St. Louis on Friday night for the tournament rematch, more than six decades in the making.
The Kentucky guys got the first one. Barrett, one of the strongest K-State fans and donors, wants his.
“I used to go to every Final Four and they’d have those winners, those national champions, encircled in every stadium,” Barrett said. “Kansas State’s name is not up there and it just irritates the hell out of me. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. I can just remember when it should have happened.”