Oh my. Fifty years. It doesn’t seem like that long ago. – Dick Nemelka

PROVO — One of Richard (Dick) Nemelka’s former BYU teammates asked him a question recently.

“Do you know where we were 50 years ago today?”

“No,” Nemelka responded. “Where?”

“We were having dinner at Mama Leone’s restaurant in Manhattan after winning the NIT.”

“Oh my. Fifty years,” Nemelka said. “It doesn’t seem like that long ago.”

Yes, it’s been a half a century since the Cougars claimed the National Invitation Tournament title in 1966 at Madison Square Garden, the "Most Famous Arena in the World.”

Fifty years later, BYU is attempting to accomplish the feat again in New York City. That quest continues when the second-seeded Cougars face No. 1 seed Valparaiso in the NIT semifinals Tuesday (5 p.m. MDT, ESPN) at Madison Square Garden.

“The NIT 50 years ago is a lot different than it is today,” said Nemelka, who was a starting guard for BYU. “The NIT was almost as big a tournament as the NCAA. They only had the top 16 teams go to the NCAA. Some of those teams weren’t ranked as high as some of the teams that went to the NIT. It was very prestigious to go to the NIT and to win it. It was a pretty big deal.”

Fifteen years earlier, in 1951, BYU won its first NIT championship. It’s the 65th anniversary of that title.

In 1966, BYU was ranked in the top 20 but was not invited to the NCAA tournament because only conference champions went to the NCAAs. Even though the Cougars defeated Utah twice that year, by scores of 94-93 and 115-100, they didn’t win the Western Athletic Conference. The Utes did.

“We lost to Arizona and Arizona State so Utah went to the NCAA tournament and we went to the NIT. Utah ended up in the NCAA Final Four,” Nemelka said. “The only regret I have is, if we hadn’t lost in Arizona, we could have gone to the NCAA tournament Final Four. Who knows? We may have even won it.”

In 1966, the NIT featured 14 teams and BYU was coached by Stan Watts, who was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1986.

The Cougars beat Temple 90-78 in the quarterfinals; Army 66-60 in the semifinals; and hometown favorite New York University 97-84 in the championship game.

Army’s coach was 25-year-old Bobby Knight, who would go on to lead Indiana to national championships and become the second all-time winningest coach in college basketball history.

“After we beat Army, Bobby Knight went to the referees and raised a ruckus, claiming that they stole the game away from Army,” Nemelka recalled.

In the waning moments of the game, Army had a two-point lead when Nemelka drove to the hoop and drew a foul.

“Bobby Knight was swearing up and down that I was a dirty ballplayer, that I was charging and did something to get the refs to call a foul against Army,” Nemelka said. “I made two foul shots to tie the game. Army brought the ball down the court and Jim Jimas stole it and scored and we won.”

In the championship game against NYU, BYU prevailed before a Garden crowd of 18,479. Nemelka scored 15 points and center Craig Raymond scored 21 and grabbed 18 rebounds.

The Who’s Who of the basketball world was at that game, including Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach and Celtics guard Bob Cousy. Broadcasters Howard Cosell and Frank Gifford were also on hand.

BYU finished the year with a 20-5 record. During the summer before the season, the Cougars played 20 exhibition games in South America.

BYU averaged 99 points a game in 1966 — without the assistance of a shot clock or the 3-point shot (the 3-point line wasn’t introduced until 20 years later, in 1986).

The 2016 Cougars are averaging 84 points per game.

“We had a very fast-paced basketball team and style that I think is a lot more fun to watch,” Nemelka said. “BYU is doing something now like it.”

Nemelka watched BYU defeat Creighton last Tuesday in the NIT quarterfinals and he’ll be watching the Cougars next Tuesday in the NIT semifinals.

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“They have a good ballclub,” he said. “I think (Kyle) Collinsworth has a good shot at playing in the NBA.”

Seeing this year’s version of the Cougars at Madison Square Garden will likely stoke some memories of 50 years ago.

“We had a fantastic time at the NIT,” said Nemelka, whose 1966 team was inducted into the BYU Hall of Fame in 1980. “It was a great experience. The people back there were wonderful and we were fortunate to win. It was a lot of fun and we had a great team. We’re going to have a 50-year reunion in St. George for the guys on the team in May. Most of them are going to be able to come with their wives. It’s really weird to think it’s been 50 years.”

EMAIL: jeffc@deseretnews.com

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