Ho hum. Now that DePaul has won its national championship, or rather its national retribution championship, the Blue Demons can go back to pouting and sulking and squeaking past the Maines and Wagners on the schedule. And acting, you know, really cool. Like they act when they don't care. Or when they aren't challenged. Or when they're not on national television. Or when they're not playing UCLA.
Over the last season and a third, in which DePaul has been just about the best college team in the country, the Blue Demons also have been the most enigmatic. Perhaps the word is lazy. How else to explain those embarrassing escapes by six points over North Texas State, by four over Loyola and by eight over Northwestern in No. 1-ranked DePaul's previous three games? But last Saturday afternoon Coach Ray Meyer's men had all their ducks in a row—the motive, the inclination, the TV spotlight and the opponent, especially the opponent—and the end result was nothing so much as a catharsis. In an absolute blowout of a very good (and No. 3-ranked) UCLA team by the score of 93-77, DePaul finally proved it is both as versatile and as talented as everyone thought all along.
When it was all over at the Rosemont Horizon outside Chicago, Mark Aguirre, the DePaul ringleader whose many moods seem to determine his team's behavioral pattern, swore that "revenge" was not involved in the beheading of the Bruins. "We just wanted to see if UCLA could beat us when we weren't in a slump, when we all were clicking," he said. "If they could, fine."
But UCLA couldn't. Not so fine. Not the way the Bruins did last March in the second round of the NCAA tournament when the Blue Demons were slumping and not clicking (read: nonchalanting) and so were upset 77-71. That defeat denied DePaul, then also rated No. 1, a chance at the national title they had been odds-on to win and dealt Aguirre what he calls "the biggest hurt of my life."
But this time the outcome was different. And the way Aguirre went about his 23 points and nine rebounds; the way Center Terry Cummings went about his 19 and eight; the way a slick-shooting stranger named Bernard Randolph came off the heretofore undistinguished DePaul bench to add 14 and six of his own; and the way the entire home team shot 56.6%, exploded for leads of 14, 18 (it was 47-29 at the half) and 23 points, then mugged, hugged and high-fived it all over the place, one could sense a lust for vengeance as well as a passion rarely seen at the college by the El tracks. "That's Christmas. I love you," Aguirre kept screaming as he put a Russian embrace on his venerable coach.
"I don't think I've ever seen a DePaul team so emotional—ever," said the 67-year-old Meyer, who has seen a few games in 38 years of coaching.
While certainly not new—the two schools first played 40 years ago, even before UCLA invented the cheerstarlet (her name, eat your heart out, boys, is Julie Hayek)—the DePaul-UCLA rivalry has only smoked up in the last three years, beginning when Aguirre came on the scene as a freshman and dunked in All-America David Greenwood's face. The Bruins won that December 1978 game, but DePaul came back to bounce UCLA out of the NCAAs. Then last season the teams exchanged those favors. "UCLA was always the dream school to me," Aguirre says. "Now it's the dynamite rival."
While DePaul had been away from home enough to be "lobbied out," as Assistant Coach Joe Meyer, the second of Ray's three sons, put it, this game was to be UCLA's first on the road. Unless one counted an 11,000-mile, round-trip foray to Japan. UCLA Coach Larry Brown didn't, even though the Bruins played their best game in demolishing Temple 73-49 at Tokyo's Yoyogi National Gymnasium. "We're still awfully young," Brown said. "Tokyo wasn't exactly a hostile environment. The Japanese presented us with new uniforms."
UCLA practiced on Christmas Day in Los Angeles, where the temperature was a record 85°. At 7:30 the next morning the Bruins worked out again, then flew to frigid Chicago, where it must have seemed like minus 85.
Brown was less concerned about the cold than about Aguirre, whom he had clashed with while working as an assistant coach on the Olympic team. Once Brown yanked Aguirre out of a game when the player embarrassed him with backtalk. "But Mark's a different guy now," Brown said. "He's happy with 18 points a game; he passes, helps out on defense, does the little things, plays the whole floor. I thought the difference between us and Louisville in the championship game last year was that we both had role players but they had the stone star [Darrell Griffith] who bailed them out when it counted. That's what Mark does for DePaul."
Since his Olympic summer, Aguirre's transformation had been as much physical as mental, what with shedding his vast Muffin Man poundage as well as his often lackadaisical attitude. Meyer, in fact, figured his star had become Mr. Wonderful right up to DePaul's second game of the season—against another one of those monsters littering the Blue Demons' schedule, namely Gonzaga. But when the coach pulled Aguirre out of that game in the second half, the 6'7" junior responded angrily and the two had words on the bench.
Moreover, DePaul's early-season tranquillity had been disturbed by the careless play of sophomore Forward Teddy Grubbs, a sensitive soul who had become Meyer's whipping boy in practice. Aguirre was forcing that issue, too—using his co-captain's role as license to criticize Grubbs himself and to implore the coach to play Randolph, his old running buddy from Westinghouse High School days in Chicago, in Grubbs' place. And sophomore Randolph—nicknamed "Dolphin"; the gag is that with Randolph in the lineup, DePaul played with more porpoise—indeed helped save the Demons after Aguirre fouled out against North Texas State.
Cognizant of his team's failings against the patsies, Meyer nevertheless was fully convinced the Demons would be properly psyched up for UCLA. He put in some new wrinkles—the DePaul guards would screen down for the forwards instead of the other way around—and hoped to get an early lead so the Demons could fall back into their much-improved zone and test UCLA's suspect outside shooting.
Aguirre had been muscle-checked last season by three different Bruins, who had since graduated, but the defender who can stop him on finesse alone hasn't been born, much less discovered in Southern California. As Aguirre pointed out, "I don't see no beef on their side anymore."
Not that UCLA was lacking for dangerous customers. Forward Slew Sanders and Guard Rod (Rocket) Foster, basketball's fastest human, had demolished DePaul last spring, and the team was bubbling with confidence after its 6-0 start. "They know who they are now," said Meyer, "and they're so quick it's scary."
Among the burners was marvelous Darren Daye, who had done everything but steal Kelly Tripucka's St. Christopher medal in UCLA's impressive 94-81 defeat of Notre Dame. On Saturday, with Daye contributing seven points and three assists as well as shutting down Aguirre at the other end, the Bruins looked in good shape early on. But Daye's layup (forging the game's sixth tie at 20—all with 8:35 left in the first half) was to be the last Bruin basket for over six minutes and...suddenly...whock!...DePaul went for the jugular and put the game away.
Fouls and an uncharacteristic lack of poise by UCLA had much to do with it, but the inside work of DePaul's Cummings and that "stone," Aguirre—why nobody has yet dubbed him The Big A is another enigma—were big factors.
At 25-22 DePaul, Randolph, in for Grubbs, drew a charge from an unhappy Daye (his second foul), immediately after which Aguirre hit a short jumper from the left and a long jumper from the right. Brown yanked Daye and sent his two best rebounders, Sanders and freshman Center Kenny Fields, back into the game. But within a minute both had been called for their third fouls—the latter on a terrible cheapie as the Demons' backcourt magician, Clyde Bradshaw, slithered around him in the lane—and Brown had to yank them also.
By this time (3:30 left) DePaul led 33-23. Then the roof caved in. Not the Horizon roof—that happened in '79—the UCLA roof. With all the fouls, Brown's substitution system was in chaos. DePaul was pressing, the capacity crowd of 16,702 was in an uproar, and there was mighty UCLA with only one starter (Foster, who was 0 for 4 at the moment) in the game.
The Bruins made three straight turnovers without getting off a shot—1) a Mark Eaton foul; Eaton, a ponderous 7'2" transfer, pushed off to get a lob pass just before realizing he had no business in this game; 2) a Bradshaw steal; and 3) a UCLA pass into downtown Chicago—and DePaul converted those into six more points and a 39-23 lead. One Demon basket was scored by reserve Dennis (Peaches) Moore, who had made just two hoops all year—surely an omen for Brown that if his team couldn't stop somebody named Peaches, it might be headed for the pits.
By intermission Foster and the other UCLA guards had missed six of seven shots over the stifling DePaul zone defense, a feat Sanders had accomplished all by himself. Still, the visitors had matched rebounds with taller, stronger DePaul, and Brown felt that if the Bruins could get off quickly in the second half, they had a chance.
They did. But they didn't. It was a measure of the Demons' brilliance—Aguirre and Cummings ("My horses," Meyer calls them) on the boards, Randolph ("Rudolph," Meyer calls him; oh well, a legend can't remember everybody) scoring at will, and Bradshaw directing traffic—that even though UCLA twice made eight-point runs and even though the lickety-split Foster scored 18 points after the break—the Bruins never got closer than 12 points.
Sanders was whistled for his fourth foul (on an apparently clean block of a Bradshaw layup) with 14:06 remaining. Said Brown later, "The look on his face meant we were finished." And certainly UCLA was, after Aguirre converted an On Donder, On Blitzen, Now Dash Away pinwheel slam from the North Pole and then surfaced slapping his unique sidewinder-five handshake on every DePaul player in hailing distance.
The score was 60-41 and soon the undefeated (9-0) Blue Demons had accomplished what the team had waited for, as Aguirre shouted in the locker room, "A whole year. Yes, sir. A year. Take that!"
Sanders, who scored four points in 24 minutes, was bitter. "They [DePaul] shouldn't feel excited about winning under these circumstances," he said. "A team shoots that many fouls [DePaul made 25 of 30 free throws to UCLA's 11 of 18], they're bound to win. And they're not going to get any better."
Meaning, of course, that Sanders hopes DePaul doesn't get better, that UCLA does and that they meet again down the road. The NCAA finals might be an appropriate setting.