UConn's opponent had everything — a tall frontcourt, a flashy guard, a future Hall of Fame coach and home-court advantage.
But the Huskies had Toby Kimball.
"Born on a mountain top in Sudbury
"He could dunk the ball when he was only three …"
Kimball was 6 feet 8, 230 pounds and had already lost most of his hair by his senior year, but he was the leading rebounder in the nation, 20.6 a game, as the Huskies played St. Joseph's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on March 8, 1965. Does this sound familiar? There were complaints because the game would be played in Philadelphia at the Palestra.
"I called the NCAA about that," UConn coach Fred Shabel told The Courant decades later. "They told me that the Palestra wasn't St. Joe's home court. Of course, in those days all of the Philadelphia schools played their Big Five games there."
Tom Penders, a sophomore point guard, recalled: "There was a fairly big controversy about going to Philadelphia. … But as players, we didn't care. Bring it on."
St. Joe's was coached by Jack Ramsay, who went to school in Milford and played at St. Joe's. . His long, illustrious career as an NBA coach and TV analyst would soon begin, but that year he led the Hawks to the tournament with a 26-1 record and was known for playing a zone press.
"Schooled at prep where he lettered in every sport,
"The way he played basketball, you'd think he owned the court"
Kimball lived in Sudbury, Mass., as a boy, prepped at Belmont and chose UConn over North Carolina. Fans Larry Kennedy and Gerald Agostinucci, students at Berlin High who wrote a many-versed poem about him, adored the unassuming giant.
"In his freshmen year he brought the crowds to their feet,
"He stood 6 foot 7 — all muscle and meat."
"He was a fabulous teammate," Penders said. "He had a great sense of humor. We all called him 'Grandpa' when we were freshmen. You could throw it anywhere in the area and he'd go get it. He didn't stand still the way they do today."
UConn was 23-2 with Kimball, who had missed the only games the Huskies lost. He had 34 rebounds against New Hampshire and was surrounded by a talented group, including guards Penders and Wes Bialosuknia. But everyone seemed to be realistic about the challenge posed by the Hawks.
"No matter what happens tomorrow," wrote The Courant's Bill Lee, "it has been a great basketball season at the University of Connecticut."
The Palestra was filled with more than 9,200 fans as UConn and St. Joe's began the third game of the day. It was tied at 6-6 when Kimball's tap-in started an 11-0 UConn run.
"His demonstration of strength, time and again, drew a roar from the huge crowd," wrote The Courant's Bill Newell.
"It was a very physical game," Penders said. "I got in a shoving match with [St. Joe's Tom Duff] and there were punches. Today, we would have both been thrown out."
The experts, Newell wrote, expected St. Joseph's Cliff Anderson to "shove the ball down Kimball's throat," but the Huskies' big man had 20 rebounds by halftime. And UConn led by as much as seven.
Or, to put it another way …
"High flying Cliff Anderson was supposed to beat Toby's brains,
But after a few minutes, Toby had him locked up in chains"
Kimball, though, had lower back pain, according to Penders. "At halftime, they gave him a cortisone shot with this huge needle," Penders said. "And it was a small locker room at the Palestra, we could all see it. We thought, 'he's not going to play.' But he played. .. "
The Hawks took control in the second half. They shut down Bialosuknia's perimeter game, holding him to 5-for-19, and held Kimball to only nine more rebounds. The Hawks' Matt Goukas scored 15 of his 19 points in the second half.
Ramsay went to a press, remembered Penders, who went on to a long, successful coaching career. St. Joe's opened an eight-point lead but UConn was back within three with 1:20 to go. In the days before the three-point arc, that was a two-possession game. Kimball and Penders scored UConn's final points in the 67-61 loss.
Kimball finished with 21 points and 29 rebounds, one of the greatest individual performances in school history. But the Huskies went 9-for-16 from the line.
"After the game we knew we'd seen him for the last,
"How can they replace a guy with such a marvelous past?
"The big captain ended up on top of the show,
"He proved he was the greatest and deserved to play pro"
Kimball played professionally in Italy and then for 10 years in the NBA, averaging 11.1 points and 11.7 rebounds for the San Diego Rockets in 1967-68 before backing up Lew Alcindor with the Bucks in 1971-72. He went into the Huskies of Honor in 2006. UConn and St. Joseph's have met only once since, a Huskies' victory in Hartford early in 1989-90.
Three weeks after the loss to St. Joe's, a letter came to The Courant's sports department.
"In return for all the happiness Toby has given us, we wrote a few verses that can best express our true feelings for the big captain," began the letter from Kennedy and Agostinucci. The boys hoped The Courant would print their verse, which it did on March 28, 1965.
"Wherever he goes he'll probably have to carry the load,
"But in our hearts we'll never forget the big guy named Toby."
No, as it was in that unforgettable season, the last line just didn't rhyme.