There was no question who the star of LaSalle’s 1954 championship team was. It was #15 Tom Gola, the 6’7″ junior forward who was more or less the original Magic Johnson, a player who would be at center court for jump ball and then moments later be bringing the ball up the court as point guard. But he wasn’t only a great ballhandler, he was also a superlative scorer and rebounder, averaging over 23.7 PPG and 21.7 RPG in the 1953-54 season. (He is the NCAA’s all time leading rebounder, with 2,201). As the Knicks coach Joe Lapchick stated when asked about Gola in 1954, “Gola is the most completely versatile player in the collegiate game. He can do everything, and do everything amazingly well.” According to the 1954 team program, he was “Calm and cool, off court and on. His lacksadaisical air cloaks a fiery competitive spirit.” According to his coach, Ken Loeffler, “Tom’s poise is his greatest asset.”
After a 21-4 start, LaSalle, the winners of the 1952 NIT, were invited to take part in the NCAA tournament. Their toughest test would come in the first round in Buffalo, as they came one second from losing to Fordham. Down by two with five seconds left, Gola took an inbounds pass at halfcourt and whipped a pass to Fran O’Malley, who was waiting under the basket. O’Malley laid it in with one second on the clock, and the game headed into overtime. LaSalle took an early lead in OT and held off Fordham to gain the 76-74 victory, led by Gola’s 28 points.
Their next game would be a shootout at the Palestra against a North Carolina State team that had won the first ever ACC tournament a week before in an overtime thriller over Wake Forest. Gola and Charles Singley, the 2nd leading scorer on the 1954 Explorers, each scored 26, and LaSalle poured in 52 2nd half points to win 88-81.
On to the Elite 8, where LaSalle again had a more or less home game at the Palestra against Navy. The game was close early on, and the two teams went into the locker room at halftime tied at 21. But LaSalle coach Ken Loeffler, who the 1954 team program said was “highly regarded as a court strategist by coaching and sports writing fraternities” must have made the right adjustments at the half. LaSalle blew the game wide open in the 2nd half, and waltzed into the Final Four with a 64-48 victory. Gola led the team with 22 points, and Singley poured in another 16.
The team then headed out to Kansas City to play in the Final Four (Where, interestingly, LaSalle plays Kansas State Friday afternoon). The games would take place in Municipal Auditorium (You can check out a pic here of the same arena at the 1957 Final Four, where you will notice #13 on Kansas, who you may recognize as another former Philly superstar). The first game would match LaSalle with Penn State, who had shocked Bob Pettit and LSU in the Sweet 16, then surprised Notre Dame in the Elite 8.
LaSalle would have an unlikely hero in the Final Four. Frank Blatcher (who you can read about here) was a 24-year old sophomore who had done a tour of duty after graduating from Southern. The 6’2″ outside gunner was too much for Penn State in the first Final 4 game, pouring in 19. The Nittany Lions held Gola to a mere 5 field goals, but he still nailed 9 from the line to also finish with 19, and LaSalle won going away, 69-54.
It was onto the championship game, against Bradley. The Braves had shocked the Hank Iba coached Oklahoma A&M (Now OK State) in the Elite 8, then edged USC 74-72 in the Final Four.
The championship game was a thriller…for one half. Bradley took a 43-42 lead into the half, but again it was Gola keying a 2nd half run, and the Explorers ran away with the championship, 92-76. Blatcher again came up huge from the outside, pouring in 23 points. Charles Singley poured in another 23, and Gola added 19, as LaSalle set a new championship game record with 92 points. In the 59 years since, only 3 teams have scored more in the championship.
LaSalle’s stars were all juniors and sophomores, and the next year LaSalle made a serious push for back to back titles. But Bill Russell and the San Francisco Dons proved to be a little too much for the Explorers. Gola graduated that year, and the Explorers haven’t been back to the Final Four since.
Gola would go on to a successful NBA career, being named an All-Star five times while playing for the Warriors and the Knicks. He later coached the Explorers to a 23-1 record in the 1968 season (one player on that team was Fran Dunphy) while serving as a state representative and running for Philadelphia city controller. He would run for Mayor in 1983, but lost in the primaries. One of the greatest athletes in Philadelphia sports history, Gola passed away in 2014 at the age of 81.