A mid the raw and wild mountains of Utah, in an atmosphere that fairly dripped with virtue, the NCAA college basketball tournament came into focus last weekend. The University of North Carolina-Charlotte joined Jimmy Carter as an entry up from nowhere, Marquette kept Al McGuire around for a few more laughs and Dean Smith's North Carolinians continued to perform brilliantly in bandages. But no team will go to the finals at the Omni in Atlanta this week with a better chance to win than the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. This is especially true since Michigan, UCLA and Kentucky, the nation's top three teams in the rankings, were all ambushed along the way.
The Runnin' Rebels thoroughly dominated the West regional at Provo with their bizarre, inexorable attack that strips away an opponent's veneer. Their style features a frenetic, clawing defense, a slew of jump shots from beyond the horizon and liberal doses of hot, buttered soul—a combination that destroyed Idaho State 107-90 in the finals on Saturday. That victory, coupled with an 88-83 win over Utah in the semifinals Thursday, and its first-round San Francisco earthquake, raised Vegas' tournament scoring average to 105 points a game and silenced critics who claimed Coach Jerry Tarkanian could not diagram the big ones. But just as certain as there was one big winner, so also was there a big loser at Provo. When Idaho State upset UCLA 76-75 Thursday night, it moved out of the ranks of potato pancakes, sending the Bruins back to Los Angeles with their reputation askew. More, it was the end of an era, the first time in 28 games and 11 years that UCLA had lost in the West regional.
The Bruins literally begged to be taken. They snubbed Marques Johnson, who had 19 points in the first half but took only four shots in the second, firing away without conscience and playing defense as if afraid to sully their hands. With less than two minutes remaining, the team from Paramount Pictures trailed 71-63 as the potato farmers stood shoulder to shoulder in the Marriott Center and chanted, "Idaho State, Idaho State." UCLA cheerleaders and song girls dabbed at mascara and network television officials scratched their heads as the legend crumbled like old plaster.
Even so the Bruins almost came back, forcing three turnovers and making five of their last six shots, and though Idaho State sank 11 of 12 free throws down the stretch, the Bengals were eyeing the clock like a reeling fighter, with Coach Jim Killingsworth all but splashing water in his ball handlers' faces. But when the buzzer sounded, UCLA, no longer regal, was just another team that won't play for its coach. Gene Bartow deserves better than pettiness. "They came in fat-headed," said Idaho reserve Center Stan Klos, who corrected critics who had called his team a bunch of mutes. "We've got a personality. It's shy." Meanwhile, Killingsworth was enjoying his overnight celebrity. "It's the first time we've ever beaten anybody this good," he said, "because it's the first time we've played anybody this good." For those who could not place Pocatello, the school's home, Killer said, "We're below Canada and above Utah." And he kidded that his team was so obscure that its Provo motel made it pay in advance. The Bengals were excited about appearing on live television for the first time, but they continued to eat meals at a local Roy Rogers drive-in, while the Bruins made a big ruckus at the motel one night because they thought their steaks had too much fat on them.
March 28, 1977
Tarkanian's instincts told him that Las Vegas would have trouble with Idaho State. Killingsworth teaches basketball by the book, and the Bengals have a 7-foot center, Steve Hayes, who, Tarkanian pointed out, "never misses," and who scored 27 points against UCLA. Also, Idaho State had the crowd behind it and its feet already measured for Cinderella slippers. "We be in trouble," said Las Vegas Center Lew Brown outside the UCLA dressing room Thursday night. "I ain't talking trash. They be sky high. If we're not on our P's and Q's, we be in trouble."
Las Vegas was concerned about playing in the high altitude of Provo, and as it happened, against Utah the Rebels had needed their delay game in the final minutes to certify victory. "The altitude makes us play like five slow white guys," moaned Tarkanian. Killingsworth noted that Idaho State had outrebounded UCLA 35-18 in the second half and estimated that it takes six weeks to adjust to the 4,549-foot altitude's oxygen debt. Tarkanian ordered a tank of oxygen for the bench, even though it would have no practical effect. "Maybe it will make our guys feel better," he said.
Late in the first half Saturday, Idaho State had a 48-41 lead, Las Vegas was in foul trouble and its shots were not dropping. But the Rebels came back to trail 51-50 at the half.
Following the intermission, Las Vegas went to work, hammering Idaho State with hustling defense and rattling in a series of outside jumpers from Sam Smith and Eddie Owens. Suddenly, on 56% second-half shooting, the lead was six points, then 10, then 15. The dream was over in Pocatello.
For Las Vegas, a team that has won 57 games in the last two years, the dream goes on. The Rebels think they can win the NCAA. In the movie The Gambler, James Caan explains a run of good luck thusly, "I've got magic powers." Rebel Reggie Theus, paraphrasing Caan and heralding the team's destiny, said, "I smell it in the air."