For the first time since World War II, DePaul is in the final four of the NCAA tournament, and as if a wait of 36 years wasn't enough, the Blue Demons found their road to Salt Lake City to be the most rugged traveled by any of the four teams that will compete there. Because of the vagaries of the tournament selection process, they had to travel far from their Chicago home to play in Provo, Utah. They had to get by UCLA, not only the best shooting team (.555) in college basketball history, but also a team that had beaten them by 23 points in November. And, in an era when most good college teams use platoons of substitutes, they had to rely on only five men.
DePaul's bench, you see, consists of seven fellows whose toughest chore seems to be standing up during time-outs so that the members of the Fatigued Five can take a seat. The subs also clap and cheer a lot, and occasionally pass a cup of water down to Coach Ray Meyer. Two reserves played a blink more than one minute last Saturday afternoon in BYU's vast Marriott Center as the DePaul starters shot, rebounded and stole their way to a shocking 17-point halftime lead, and then wearily hung on to edge the Bruins 95-91.
Meyer, 65, has been coaching the Demons for 37 seasons, and although he has once before gone to the NCAA semis, has won an NIT and last season guided DePaul to a 27-3 record, this one could turn out to be the happiest of all because of his Fatigued Five. Most of the publicity has gone to chubby Mark Aguirre, a good shooter—his regular-season scoring average of 24.1 led the nation's freshmen—who has gradually improved his rebounding and defense. Guards Gary Garland and Clyde Bradshaw, both from New Jersey, and Forward Curtis Watkins shoot well, too, and excel at swiping passes. Six-nine Center Jim Mitchem this season jumps three inches higher than last because he lifted weights.
Thursday night in Provo, DePaul had a tough time with old rival Marquette, which the Demons had beaten by a point in February. DePaul trailed in the first half by as many as nine and in the second half by eight, but fought back to win 62-56.
Many felt that the second game on Thursday, UCLA vs. USF, was going to decide the West's representative. The Bruins' weakest position by far, center, was precisely where the Dons had 7'1" Bill Cartwright. UCLA trailed by two at halftime but buried the WCAC champions in the second half with a 73% shot-making performance. Guard Brad Holland hit six of eight field-goal attempts, and his backcourt mate, Roy Hamilton, was nine for nine to finish with 36 points.
By racing to a 99-81 win over a very strong team, the Bruins looked as if they would streak right past DePaul, Indiana State, the Washington Bullets or anybody else foolish enough to challenge them as they went after their 11th NCAA title. The only man in Provo who seemed to think otherwise was Meyer. Before the game he telephoned some prize high school recruits back in the Midwest and told them to be sure to watch what was going to happen on TV.
It was well worth seeing. Time after time the Demons stole passes or poked them away. The inside play of UCLA All-America David Greenwood was all that kept the first half from being a total disaster for the Bruins, who trailed by those 17 points at intermission.
At the end of halftime the rudeness of the UCLA band lost any local crowd support the Bruins might have had. A BYU student troupe was still putting on a Spanish dance show when the Bruins returned from their locker room and their band began blasting fight songs, drowning out the Spanish music. From then on the game might as well have been played in DePaul's Alumni Hall on West Belden Avenue. In fact, as the score grew close in the late stages of the second half, the crowd's support of the Demons perhaps made the difference in the game.
Substituting freely, pressing full-court and trapping DePaul dribblers, UCLA ate away at the lead. The Demons used a four-corners attack—if attack is the word—because Meyer had directed them to pass the ball around for a minute on each possession before attempting a shot. His strategy, which turned out to be a good one by the barest of margins, was to prevent UCLA from running off a rapid succession of second-half points, a Bruin trademark this season. And because he couldn't afford to have any of his starters foul out, Meyer kept them in a zone defense, which Greenwood very nearly demolished. He finished with a career-high 37 points, many of them on two-handed dunks.
But UCLA had too much ground to make up. The Bruins got as close as two points and lost by four, as the Demons narrowly avoided living up to the ideals of Saint Vincent de Paul, the Apostle of Charity.
"This is the greatest thing that's ever happened to me," said Meyer, who may well be using the same line next month. Even if the Baron of Belden Avenue sees his team beaten in the semis or the final, there is still another thrill awaiting him this year. On April 30 he will get his own stained-glass panel in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Of course, he deserves it for his years of expert coaching, but they could've honored him on the basis of patience alone.