Ultimately, afterthree weeks of passion-wrenching scenes, Loyola Marymount, the little team thatran the socks off nearly everyone, got run out of the Oakland Coliseum onSunday by the bigger, stronger, faster and, yes, even better-conditionedRunnin' Rebels of UNLV, a team that did everything the Lions did, only better.But no one need think that Loyola Marymount's fallen leader, Hank Gathers, whohad collapsed and died of heart failure in a game just 22 days earlier, mightbe dishonored by the 131-101 blowout. The hustling, hardscrabble Vegascrew—whose remarkable forward tandem of Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnsoncombined for 53 points and 29 rebounds—beat the Lions at their own game.
Loyola Marymount,with Gathers in the lineup, also lost to UNLV in the regular season, back onNov. 15. At the end of that 102-91 rout, during which nasty words between theteams were exchanged, a furious Gathers, who had a solid 18 points and 11rebounds, stormed toward the UNLV bench, beckoning one and all to come and getit. Later, Rebel coach Jerry Tarkanian came to the visitors' locker room toapologize for the behavior of his players. Ever the gallant warrior, Gatherssat on a bench and said softly, "Maybe we'll see them againsometime."
So it was thatpathos pervaded the West Regional, where Gathers's brave, brokenheartedteammates pressed on without him. Suddenly they were celebrities—Bo Kimble andJeff Fryer shooting three-pointers on The Arsenio Hall Show—but, said guard TomPeabody, "for all the wrong reasons. Hank had to die for us to come intothe light."
In addition tospeaking of the emotional surge driving his team, Loyola coach Paul Westheadacknowledged a terrible group fear, not so much of losing in the tournament butof finishing it. Measuring his words, Westhead said, "Basketball is theeasy part. We all know, when this is over we are going to have to face Hank'sdeath again—and there won't be the games to fall back on."
The day beforethe final, Westhead reviewed a tape of his team's earlier loss to the Rebs atUNLV. Gathers was everywhere. "There was some great stuff," Westheadsaid, his eyes moistening. He considered asking his players if they wanted toview the tape, but he never did. "I may have made a technical mistake,"he said. "But I know I did the right thing for them."
Neither UNLV norLoyola made it to their reunion easily. The Rebels, who barely escaped BallState 69-67 in one semifinal, were called "thugs" by Cardinals coachDick Hunsaker, who apparently didn't appreciate his own trash-talker, ParisMcCurdy, being taunted in return. In an earlier round, McCurdy had yapped somuch at Oregon State's major-mouth, Gary Payton, that Payton had requested helpfrom the referee. The colloquial Card stated his philosophy: "I try to putthem to the test with my talking," McCurdy said. "They get to a pointwhere they want to bust me in the mouth."
Which, sureenough, the Rebs nearly did after Ball State's Mike Spicer short-armed a lobpass in the lane as the Cards' final bid for the upset disappeared. A circle ofUNLV players surrounded McCurdy as the teams filed to the locker rooms; theyweren't singing I Love Paris in the Springtime either.
"Other teamskeep it [the talking] to basketball," Loyola's Chris Knight observed."Vegas is like, "Where's your mother? I think she's in my room.'They're dirtier. They're funnier."
Meanwhile, theLions needed their previously unrecognized poise and patience to fend offAlabama 62-60 in the other semi. Loyola prevailed, even though the CrimsonTide—surely the best-coached team in the tournament courtesy of Wimp ("Iwas named that before anybody knew what one was") Sanderson—outshot andoutrebounded the Lions and slowed their high-powered, 122-points-per-gameoffense to a virtual crawl.
Was Alabamashaken up by Gathers's death? "Aww, man," said Tide forward RobertHorry. "He played on the West Coast. We're an East Coast team. Nofactor."
UNLV didn't letits sympathy for the Lions get in the way of business. Just before they boardedthe bus to the game on Sunday, Rebel guard Greg Anthony addressed histeammates. "They [Loyola Marymount] are living a dream," he said."It's time someone woke them up." At the behest of Tarkanian, SteveWynn, owner of the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, gave the pregame speech. (No,Wynn did not implore the Rebels to win one for Siegfried and Roy.)
Outsprinting thesprinters, Vegas cut the Lions' transition game to ribbons and shredded theirvaunted full-court pressure defense. The Rebels led 16-4 and 35-17 beforeLoyola trimmed the lead to 43-39, with 5:01 left in the first half. However,UNLV responded by scoring 13 unanswered points in only 79 seconds, and the gamewas essentially over. The Rebels led 67-47 at intermission and never let thelead slip below double figures after that, thanks not only to Johnson andAugmon but also to wondrous guard Anderson Hunt, who had a nifty line of 30points, 13 assists and six steals.
Although Kimble,who wound up with 42 points, including eight three-pointers, kept firing,Augmon noted something strange. "Without them having Hank," he said,"it seemed very weird out there. Like something was missing."
Something was, ofcourse, except in spirit. After the game, Peabody was the only Lion player whowept openly. There would be time for that later. Instead, Westhead confessed tohis worst fear: "That the more we kept winning, the more we would believethat we were special, that we were magic, that we were touched by a magic wand.I never wanted that."
Yet at the buzzerthere was the Lions' Marcellus Lee, an ungainly senior sub who had played allof three minutes in the tournament, lofting one final trey to try to reach onefinal 100-point plateau for Loyola. Swish. Westhead smiled. "We got thelast one," he said.
Knight was proud to wear Gathers's No. 44, as were all the mourning Loyola players.
In taming the Lions, Augmon and UNLV were bigger, faster and even better conditioned.