QUINCY -- It's been 40 years since the best basketball team in Quincy University history has been together.
The 1977-78 team, then known as Quincy College, won a school-record 30 games and took third place in the NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City. It is being inducted into the school's Hall of Fame on Saturday.
The Hawks finished the season with just nine players but were loaded with athleticism. The dunk was banned in college basketball only two seasons earlier, and QC had several eye-catching leapers who loved to play above the rim.
Hawks coach Sherrill Hanks termed his team's style "alley ball" early in the season but eventually admitted it was best for this bunch.
"We had a core of good people who could flat out play," said Cornel Benford, a co-captain. "Even the subs could play. We didn't skip a beat when we went to the bench. Just a great team from top to bottom."
"Oh my God, we were athletic," said Mike Hoene, the other co-captain. "We had guys who could run and jump."
For all of the victories, dunks and success, this team's season was defined by a week in January and one game in Chicago.
Getting to know each other
Big things were expected after the Hawks won a school-record 24 games the year before.
Larry Moore (19 ppg) and Greg Dec (13.5 ppg) both graduated, but Benford averaged 17.7 points per game as a junior after becoming eligible for the second semester. He was named a preseason All-American. Also back were Chris Curran (13.5 ppg), Tony Kennedy (8.4 ppg) and Hoene, who averaged 5.9 points and 4.4 assists.
Hanks added Dennis DeWalt and Gregg Huguley, junior college transfers from Michigan; Steve Wolfe, a junior college transfer from Kansas; and Rex Flynn, a junior college transfer from New Mexico.
The Hawks won 12 of their first 13 games, but with half of the team from urban areas like Chicago and Detroit and the other half from small towns like Effingham and Quincy, they spent much of that time learning how to play together -- and for Hanks.
"I learned a lot from Larry Moore about how to be a team captain and how to put your team first," Benford said. "I made sure Dennis took every first shot of the game, even if I had a layup, because he needed to be part of the game. If I could get Gregg a 15-footer, I made sure to do that. Tony Kennedy had to have some type of lob.
"Coach Hanks was very disciplined. He didn't like none of that behind-the-back stuff, and we were intelligent, so we adjusted to Coach Hanks' philsoophy. Anything that was fancy or hot doggish, you make sure that play succeeded, or the bench was your next stop."
"I just remember (Hanks) telling us to go ahead and play and let things happen," Hoene said.
QC's first test came on Jan. 16 at Chicago State. The Hawks and Cougars figured to be the top two teams in the NAIA's District 20, and Chicago State won 81-68. Len Cyrus scored 28 points for the Cougars, and the excitable public address announcer shrieked "KC and the Sunshine Band" every time Cyrus touched the ball.
"It was a crazy atmosphere," Hoene said. "The announcer did a play-by-play the whole game."
Quitting the team
The Hawks played nationally ranked Illinois State three days later. QC picked up the game after the University of Evansville basketball team perished in a plane crash on Dec. 13, 1977.
The Hawks lost 86-76 but trailed by just four points with 1:05 remaining in the game.
However, Curran had quit the team earlier that day. He had started all 14 games and was averaging 9.9 points.
"I don't like basketball any more," he told The Herald-Whig. "I guess I made a mistake. Only those who have been burned understand what the fire is about. Basically, I just didn't get along with Coach Hanks. We had a personality clash.
"I think I can have more fun in the church league."
Five days later, sophomore Jay Frericks left the team. He averaged 3 points and 3 rebounds off the bench.
"Playing basketball here is too high a price to pay for my education," he told The Herald-Whig. "I have always enjoyed my relationship with the players, but not with Mr. Hanks."
An injury to Bill Bihun and Glenn Girard's illness, coupled with the two defections, left the Hawks with nine players to get through the rest of the season.
A similar situation happened the year before. Four veteran players left the team just three games during Hanks' second season.
"A lot of guys who came off the bench just didn't understand or could deal with Coach Hanks," Benford said. "He was who he was. It was his way or the highway."
Kansas City, here we come
The Hawks were 24-5 entering postseason play. They drew a first-round bye in the District 20 tournament and defeated St. Xavier 84-69 in the semifinals, earning a return trip to Chicago State.
QC trailed 61-54 with 6:40 remaining but rallied to tie the score. Benford had a chance to win the game but missed a 5-footer at the buzzer in regulation, and he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 37 seconds left in overtime with the score tied.
However, DeWalt made a steal late in the game, and Benford was fouled with five seconds left. He made one of two free throws, and the Hawks won 68-67.
Both Hoene and Benford remember an interesting happening that night.
"Someone lit a garbage can on fire outside, and they opened the doors, and some of the smoke filtered into the gym," Benford said. "It was a fear tactic. We were going into a hostile environment, and some of our players hadn't experienced that."
"We had to stop the game for a while," Hoene said. "No one knew what the heck was going on."
QC earned its first bid to the NAIA National Tournament since 1967, and the school had won just one game in four previous appearances. The Hawks were seeded fifth in the 32-team field.
QC won the opener 70-63 over Southern Tech (Ga.). Benford, DeWalt and Wolfe all had four fouls with about 10 minutes to play, but the Hawks kept their opponents scoreless for seven minutes. Benford scored seven points in the final 2:15 of the game.
Overtime was needed for the Hawks to defeat Erskine (S.C.) 85-84. DeWalt, who had 24 points and 13 rebounds, broke the tie at 83 with a basket with 1:56 left to play, but the Hawks missed three free throws -- including two by Hoene with 10 seconds left -- that gave Erskine a chance. Wayne Gaskill, who had scored 31 points, had a 22-footer rim out at the buzzer.
Wolfe had 18 points in a 73-66 quarterfinal victory over Missouri Southern, but the title dreams ended the next day in a 76-74 loss to Kearney State (Neb.). The Hawks led by 14 points with 10 minutes to play, but 22 turnovers were costly. A pass from Hoene to DeWalt went astray with six seconds left, and Tom Ritzdorf made a 12-footer with one second left for Kearney State.
"We tried to have a semi stall, but that was not what we needed to do," Benford said.
DeWalt, who had 29 points and four dunks in the semifinal, had 21 points and 11 rebounds in an 87-73 victory over East Texas State for third place.
"We thought should have won it, but when it's all said and done, you can't go back and change it," Hoene said. "We were happy with third place."
Reuniting with friends
Benford said he helped escort recruits around campus that season, and he was in charge of the players who "might have extended themselves in some late-night campus activities," he said with a laugh.
Now he's hoping to reunite with old friends, now in their 60s, who he hasn't seen since that magical run in March 1978.
"The community was proud of us. Who thought we could get that far?" said Benford, who has done a lot of youth coaching in Chicago. "After 40 years, you'll probably never get another team to duplicate what we did. I played with eight great ball players."
Hoene is retired after a long career in the printing business. He helps watch his grandkids grow up in Effingham, where he grew up. He also will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as an individual.
"It was a lot of fun, and it was an exciting year," he said. "Everybody just pulled together. I don't think it about it much now, but it was a lot of good memories."