If you’re in the BJC for THON – especially during the down hours – you may find yourself taking in the BJC in all its glory. You’ll notice the banners hanging throughout, showcasing the best years in Penn State Basketball history. While you’re looking around, it’s certainly possible that your eyes will fall upon the Penn State Men’s Basketball banner that reads “Nittany Lions 1954 NCAA Final Four.”
Penn State basketball hasn’t been the most successful team in terms of getting a bid to the Big Dance recently, so this banner might surprise you. Here’s a little history lesson on the team responsible for Penn State’s deepest run into the NCAA Tournament in school history:
The Nittany Lions posted a 14-5 regular season record in 1953-1954. How about this to show the change in times: Penn State played its home games in Rec Hall and was ranked No. 9 in the AP Poll at the end of the season. This team took down the likes of Syracuse, West Virginia, Pitt, and Georgetown during the regular season – certainly some historically great teams.
Penn State took on Toledo in its opening March Madness matchup in Fort Wayne, IN, taking care of business 62-50. Penn State’s next matchup resulted in a win over No. 8 LSU – a huge upset at the time. The Nittany Lions took on a No. 6 Notre Dame team that had an 18-game winning streak heading into the Elite Eight, but that didn’t phase this Penn State team as it won 71-63.
The Nittany Lions ultimately lost to No. 2 La Salle in the Final Four, ending their chances of a shot at the National Championship. Penn State did, however, play in a third place game (which doesn’t exist anymore), defeating No. 11 USC with a tally of 70-61. Take that, USC!
Penn State’s captain was Jack Sherry, a two-sport star in his time. Sherry walked onto the basketball team as a freshman, but also starred on the football team. In fact, Sherry set a school record in with 8 interceptions in 1952. He was named a captain by his senior season on the basketball team, scoring 14 points in Penn State’s upset of Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.
The Nittany Lions’ head coach during its Final Four run was Elmer Gross, a former Nittany Lion basketball star. Gross earned bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees from Penn State and went on to become a professor after his coaching tenure. Gross was a captain and leading scorer for the 1942 Nittany Lion squad (also up on a banner) that ended the season with an 18-3 record along with a No. 10 ranking in the AP Poll. His first NCAA appearance as a coach in 1952 made him the first person to both play and coach in the NCAA Tournament.
Before he even started coaching, he served in the U.S. Army, taking part in the invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach (the largest amphibious military operation in history). Coach Gross was awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star after being wounded at Saint-Lo in 1944.
The 1954 Penn State Basketball team was historic in every sense of the word, if you were wondering.