LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDTN) — 55 years ago, the University of Dayton fought its way to the top of NCAA Basketball, but the Flyers fell to a newly formed dynasty on the west coast in the National Championship game.
Don Donoher, a Toledo native, came into the University of Dayton as a player first in 1951. At the time, freshmen couldn’t play varsity college basketball, but Donoher sat on the bench and learned more about the game through then-head coach Tom Blackburn.
Donoher finished his college career with 578 points in 72 games wearing the Flyers jersey. In 1963, Blackburn offered Donoher an opportunity to be an assistant coach for the Flyers.
After Blackburn passed away in 1964, Donoher took over as head coach with a players’ mentality that the team embraced and took them to the NCAA tournament in his first three years.
“We caught a tremendous break when Henry Finkel turned down an opportunity to go pro. He stayed in school and he really got us started,” Donoher said.
“Along with that, we came up with a real solid recruiting class with Don May, Bob Hooper, and that bunch sort of planted the seed.”
“(May), among other things, he was a tremendous rebounder and as tough as nails,” Doroher said. “He set the tone for the toughness of that team.”
After a two-point win over Western Kentucky in the first round, the Flyers came across one of the top teams in the country: the University of Tennessee Volunteers. Led by two future NBA players, Ron Widby and Tom Boerwinkle, the Volunteers and the Flyers played a tight defensive game.
Yet again, Dayton had to fight until the very end as they beat the Volunteers by one point to move onto the Elite Eight.
In the Mideast regional finals, Dayton faced off against the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Flyers were able to escape with the Mideast regional title with a 71-55 overtime win over the Hokies, setting Dayton up with yet another tough match-up in the Final Four.
“He had his own style, kind of unique,” Donoher remembered.
Smith, in his sixth season as the Tar Heels head coach, looked dominant on paper but had lost a handful of games during the regular season, games the team wished they had back.
The Tar Heels did finish the regular season strong as they become the Atlantic Coastal Conference champions, landing them a spot in the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina beat the fifth-ranked Princeton, a team they had previously lost to that season, in the first round. Then, the Tar Heels beat ninth-ranked Boston College in the second round. Their third-round match-up: the University of Dayton Flyers.
In 1967, the NCAA tournament only had five rounds that teams had to get through, but the Dayton Flyers weren’t ready to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive home.
“They were a powerful bunch,” Doroher said. “But, we were at our best that night and we needed to be to get by them.”
The Flyers topped the North Carolina Tar Heels 76-62.
On March 25, 1967, Coach Donoher faced one of the most decorated head coaches in NCAA history, John Wooden. He won back-to-back NCAA championships in 1964 and 1965 with the University of California Los Angeles Bruins.
But Wooden had a freshman who would go on to be one of the greatest to ever touch the hardwood at all levels: Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a seven-foot center who made an immediate impact on the Bruins.
The 1966-67 UCLA Bruins dominated their regular season going undefeated in both conference and non-conference games providing them with a bye in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Top-ranked UCLA blew their first opponent in the NCAA tournament, the University of Wyoming Cowboys, off the floor with a 109-60 victory.
The Bruins won their next two games by an average of 15 points against Pacific and seventh-ranked Houston.
Meanwhile, the Dayton Flyers were waiting for the Bruins in the National Championship game.
The Flyers were able to contain Abdul-Jabbar early in the first half, but the Bruins had been the best team in the country without Kareem the year prior. Four of the five starters ended the game in double digits for points and it seemed nothing would fall for the Flyers.
“They had a different style at the time,” Donoher said. “Just pressure, talent, coaching, those Wooden teams were really something to watch.”
Dayton’s Don May stuck with Abdul-Jabbar as much as a six-foot-four forward could.
“Nothing Don did was a surprise to me. He was a gifted player,” Donoher said. “(It) seemed like tougher the challenge the more he produced. He was a beautiful player.”
Yet, Kareem showed everyone why he was the top prospect and the most dominant college player to hit the hardwood since Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlin. Any player who went into the paint to challenge Abdul-Jabbar saw their ball moments later flying into the crowd.
UCLA finished the first half with an 18 point lead, but the Flyers came out defending better than they did at the start of the game.
The Bruins’ defense did pressure Dayton’s players on every procession, making it hard for anybody, but May, to see their shots fall.
May had some help in the championship game from Rudy Waterman with 10 points, two assists, and a single rebound coming off the bench. Waterman and May were the only Flyers to finish the game in double digits in points.
Dayton came back strong in the second half, but it still wasn’t enough to clinch the NCAA Championship.
The Flyers lost to the Bruins 79-64.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led the Bruins in the 1967 NCAA championship game with 20 points, 18 rebounds, and three assists. The Bruins capped off their perfect 30-0 season by cutting down the net at Freedom Hall in Louisville.
Abdul-Jabbar’s dominating freshman performance made such an impact on college basketball that the NCAA banned dunking for nearly ten years.
Don May finished the NCAA championship game with 21 points, 17 rebounds, and three assists. He played every second for the Flyers.
May would later be named to the NCAA tournament first team, along with Abdul-Jabbar.
One year later, the Flyers would also become champions. This time, of the 1968 NIT tournament after they topped the Kansas Jayhawks at Madison Square Garden.
“We had high expectations of what we did the year before,” Donoher said. “We really underachieved (1968 season), but thank god we got our act together in the nick of time. We were the last dog in the fight and to go to New York and win that tournament made for nice memories.”
Don May would be named the NIT tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
Wooden, Abdul-Jabbar, and the Bruins won four straight NCAA titles in 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970.
The New York Knicks drafted Don May with the 30th overall pick in the 1968 NBA draft. He went on to be a part of the 1970 NBA Championship team. May played eight years in the NBA.
Don Donoher finished his career with the University of Dayton as head coach until he retired in 1989. He took the Flyers to the NCAA tournament eight times in his 25-year career. Donoher was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
“My experience at Dayton was just a dream,” Donoher said. “From the moment I first stepped foot on campus, played for Tom Blackburn and played with those great players that he brought in there and to be able to come back and be the coach beyond any dream that you could have.”
To this day, the 1967 team is the furthest the Flyers program ever got to cutting down the net at the end of the NCAA tournament.
“(Dayton) kind of overachieved,” Donoher said. “They were a cohesive bunch. Good kids, tough, and enjoyed playing with one another. They were fun to be around.”
To watch the 1967 NCAA National Championship game, click here.