North Carolina’s Junior College basketball past: The first of a 4-part series starts with Belmont Abbey’s early dominance

North Carolina and the National Junior College Athletic Association Region X area that also includes schools from South Carolina and Virginia has a rich basketball history that dates to the 1920s. We’re doing a four-part series on that history:
Part 1: The early years from 1929 to the 1950s when Belmont Abbey was one of the powers
Part 2: The 1960s when Gardner-Webb emerged as a dominant program
Part 3: The 1970s when Gaston College fielded successful teams and one of them nearly advanced to the national tournament
Part 4: The all-time great coaches and players of Region X and the two recent national championship teams.

By Richard Walker

Belmont Abbey Junior College basketball coach Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler is shown in this 1933 clipping in The Charlotte News holding the trophy given to the inaugural North Carolina Junior College Conference basketball tournament champion.

North Carolina has a rich history in junior college basketball that dates to the 1929 start of statewide competition.

Among the first powers was Belmont Abbey, which officially became an accredited junior college in the 1928-29 school year.

Previously a boarding school for high school students, the Crusaders played a schedule of games against other junior colleges, senior college freshman and junior varsity teams, area high schools and YMCA teams in those early years.

After completing The Haid gymnasium in December 1930, Belmont Abbey had a showplace for its winning program.

Now the school’s Haid Theatre, it was known for creating a significant homecourt advantage for the Abbey teams. Benches for both teams were on one side of the gymnasium with all fans sitting on bleacher seats on the opposite side. And the distance from the basketball sidelines to the brick wall were as close as three feet in some areas.

The Crusaders won their first nine games in the venue and 38 of the first 41 from 1930 to 1935, then had a school-record 21-game winning streak from 1937 to 1939.

Coached by former Duke football star Fred Shipp in 1929, Belmont Abbey claimed the first “unofficial” state title in 1929 after winning 18 of 20 games.

In 1930, former Illinois football player Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler became the Abbey’s coach and athletic director.

In Wheeler’s first season as basketball coach, not only did the school open The Haid but it became embroiled in a controversy that led to the official formation of the North Carolina Athletic Conference of Junior Colleges on May 2, 1931.

Belmont Abbey and Wingate had split their games in the basketball season – with the home team winning each contest – and both claimed the state title.

The new league, whose members were Biltmore (now UNC-Asheville), Boiling Springs (now Gardner-Webb), Campbell, Lees-McRae, Mars Hill, Presbyterian of Maxton (now part of St. Andrews), Rutherford College (later combined with Weaver to form Brevard), Weaver and Wingate. (In the years since, each of the original members have become four-year colleges and universities.)

In 1932, Belmont Abbey claimed its third title in four years before a league tournament began at Davidson College in 1933.

Wingate won that first title by a 43-38 score over the Crusaders on Feb. 25, 1933.

Belmont Abbey was tournament champion or runner-up eight times in the first 11 years – with championships in 1935, 1938, 1939, 1941 and 1949 – and no tournaments were held in 1936 and During World War II from 1943 to 1947.

The Crusaders beat Brevard 31-17 in the 1935 title game played at Charlotte’s Alexander Graham Junior High.

In 1938 and 1939, the Abbey knocked off Campbell 32-20 and 47-28 in championship games played at Davidson and the Gastonia Armory, respectively.

In 1941, Belmont Abbey won the championship game held again at the Gastonia Armory by a 47-38 margin over Lees-McRae.

And in 1949, the Crusaders won their last junior college tournament title with a 41-38 victory over Campbell at the American Enka Corporation gymnasium in Asheville.

Belmont Abbey’s 1938 N.C. Junior College Conference basketball tournament championship team.

Other early championship teams were Oak Ridge Military Academy and Lees-McRae. Campbell finished as tournament runner-up five times.

In 1947, with membership was growing, two leagues were born – the Eastern Carolina Junior College Conference and Western Carolinas Junior College Conference. Additionally, Spartanburg, S.C., College became the first team from outside the Tar Heel state to join the league.

Belmont Abbey also became the first of many of the junior colleges to become a four-year school in 1953. Others to make the switch were St. Andrews (1958), Pfeiffer (1960), Campbell (1961), Mars Hill (1962), UNC-Wilmington (1963), UNC-Asheville (1964), UNC Charlotte (1965), Gardner-Webb (1969), Wingate (1978), Mount Olive (1986), Lees-McRae (1990), North Greenville (1992), Chowan (1993), Anderson (1996) and Brevard (1998). Oak Ridge stopped its athletics program in 1967 and Edwards Military (later named Southwood) closed in 1973.

Only Louisburg and Spartanburg Methodist, both of whom joined in 1946, have remained two-year schools.

Wheeler guided the Crusaders to a 289-129 record in his 20 years as Belmont Abbey Junior College coach. When the Abbey became a four-year school, Wheeler turned over the basketball coaching reins to others and remained athletic director and head baseball coach; Wheeler remained the school’s athletic director until his death in 1968 and the school’s current indoor athletic facility is named in his honor.