In the Final Four, on the biggest stage that college basketball has to offer, with a player who made anything possible, Seattle University led Kentucky 60-58 with seven minutes remaining. The Chieftains had gone ahead by 11 in the first half. The team in the bright red uniforms with the short sleeves had one hand on the national championship trophy.
Unfortunately, reality set in and slapped it away. Elgin Baylor's ribs hurt to the point he could barely breathe. And Kentucky, playing an hour away from home in Louisville, was Kentucky. Adolph Rupp's traditional powerhouse took over down the stretch and any Cinderella notions for the Northwest team took a pounding.
Final score: Kentucky 84, Seattle U 72.
While the outcome was deflating, the fact that SU made it all the way to the NCAA final game and hung tough with the college game's most pre-eminent program remains the greatest sporting achievement in school history.
"I just said I don't know what could have happened," said Baylor, referring to the prospect of playing without injured ribs. "They obviously were the best team. At least they were that night."
With Seattle U returning to full Division I championship eligibility for the first time in 33 years -- when the Redhawks host Washington in a women's soccer match at Championship Field on Aug. 17 -- this is the last in a series of 33 stories replaying memorable SU events previously held at the NCAA's top level (1952-80).
While Kentucky had the best team in America in 1958, SU undoubtedly had the best player that season. Baylor was a first-team Associated Press All-America selection, the Helms Foundation Player of the Year and the Final Four MVP even after finishing on the runnerup team. He was the nation's second-leading scorer at 32.5 points per game.
Baylor single-handedly led the Chieftains to the Final Four, notably beating San Francisco with a 30-foot shot at the buzzer in a second-round game.
"We knew what a great player he was," Kentucky's Adrian Smith said. "Maybe we were in awe of him. You knew who the focal point was -- it was Elgin."
The Wildcats never saw Baylor at his best. In the semifinals, when Seattle U destroyed NCAA Tournament favorite Kansas State 73-51, Baylor caught an accidental elbow in his left side from Bob Boozer, fracturing some ribs.
Kentucky ran everything at the incapacitated Baylor and got him into game-long foul trouble. With the rib discomfort, Baylor didn't shoot that well. Seattle U hung in there until Baylor drew his fourth foul early in the second half, prompting coach John Castellani to put his team in a zone defense to try and keep Baylor on the floor. It didn't work. The Chiefs went flat. The Wildcats got hot from the outside and pulled away, and it was over.
"It wasn't like it was the end of the world, but we were disappointed, especially for our school," Seattle U guard Don Piasecki said. "We had it there in our grasp and just lost it."
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