A couple of distinguished coaching careers passed in the night during last week's Midwest Regional in Lawrence, Kans., as 64-year-old Ray Meyer saw perhaps his last fine DePaul team knocked out of the NCAAs by a rugged outfit from his alma mater, Notre Dame. At the same time, the Irish's 84-64 victory represented a milestone for their celebrated young coach, Digger Phelps, who, at 36, will be taking a Notre Dame team to the national finals after four consecutive years of losing in the opening round of the regionals.
"Every coach's dream is to make the final four," said Phelps, who broke into tears when his regulars came out of the game with 27 seconds to go and DePaul soundly beaten. "I was starting to feel like Bear Bryant with his bowl-game jinx. Now 28 of the tournament teams are gone, and we're one of the four left. You live for these moments."
Phelps had called the Midwest championship game a "subway series," because Meyer had been a captain at Notre Dame during his playing days in the '30s and because this DePaul team, Meyer's 36th, had upset the Irish 69-68 in overtime earlier in the season. To remind his players of the task at hand, Phelps, who is a big believer in blackboard slogans and the like, saw to it that cards reading DEPAUL 69 NOTRE DAME 68 were taped to each locker.
The game itself boiled down to the fact that Notre Dame's quartet of big, brawny frontcourt men—6'8" Bruce Flowers, 6'11" Bill Laimbeer, 6'9" Dave Batton and 6'7" Kelly Tripucka—were able to keep the ball away from DePaul's 6'11" Center Dave Corzine much better than Louisville had in the regional semifinals Friday night. Of course, that isn't saying much. The Cardinals' pathetic man-to-man defense allowed Corzine to make 18 virtually uncontested baskets, including a little hook that fell through the hoop in the waning seconds of the second overtime to give Corzine 46 points and DePaul a 90-89 victory.
March 27, 1978
Against Notre Dame, Corzine scored only 17 hard-earned points and did not see the ball very often. Whenever he seemed on the verge of breaking loose, the Irish banged him around a little more underneath or crowded him farther from the basket. Then Tripucka would erupt at the other end of the floor.
After DePaul opened up a 29-21 lead, the intrepid freshman from Essex Fells, N.J. charged inside for three quick baskets, including a tip-in that gave Notre Dame a 37-33 halftime lead. Four baskets by Corzine helped put the Demons back on top in the opening minutes of the second half, but again it was Tripucka who rammed in six points in less than two minutes to push the Irish ahead 47-46. And the last two times that DePaul closed the gap to within a basket, Tripucka scored to keep the Demons at bay. Notre Dame then ran off 11 points in a row to lead 67-54, and with 5:13 remaining, the subway series was over.
Though both schools are relatively small Catholic institutions that believe in keeping a priest on their bench at all times, they are completely different in image and style. Notre Dame, as everyone knows, is the Camelot of collegiate sports, and Phelps certainly does nothing to downplay this. Owing to his the-world-is-our-oyster recruiting policy, Notre Dame's 14-man roster in St. Louis will not include a player from the state of Indiana.
DePaul, on the other hand, suited up only two players against the Irish who were from outside the Chicago area. However, when Meyer can convince some local talent to stay around home—as he did four years ago when he hung on to Corzine—the Demons can be exceedingly tough. They proved that on Feb. 11, when Corzine scored 23 points and Guard Gary Garland hit a last-second jumper to beat the Irish at South Bend.
It was an embarrassing setback, coming as it did before a national TV audience. Notre Dame's vengefulness was enhanced last Friday night when the Irish players had to wait a long time for their postgame meal to be served because the staff of the Vista Drive-In was busy with an unusual order—300 Vistaburgers to go—for a DePaul party. No wonder Batton breached an unwritten rule, admitting that the idea of a rematch had crossed his mind even before Notre Dame had disposed of Utah 69-56 in the semifinals.
A gracious, three-piece-suited contingent away from the action, the Irish are not that pretty to watch—or that much fun to play against—once they get out on the court. They set 1,001 picks, and it is an unpleasant adventure trying to stop them. Tripucka, the tournament's outstanding player and Notre Dame's main source of energy and excitement, is totally uninhibited for a freshman. He will take the ball to the hoop against absolutely anyone, and he isn't terribly bashful with his non-playing elders, either. At picture day last September, he walked up to Notre Dame's 5'5" Sports Information Director Roger Valdiserri and gave his bald head a massage. He also calls Athletic Director Ed Krause by his nickname, "Moose." What else?
"I guess all Jersey kids are a little crazy," says Tripucka. "But I like being real friendly, and I also like getting pounded on the court. I'll take the bucket or the free throws, it doesn't matter. I just enjoy the way I play the game."
Chances are that Duke, the Irish's next opponent, will not.