Last Friday night, after the opening games at the NCAA Midwest Regional in St. Louis, Houston Coach Guy Lewis flopped down wearily in a chair at the Checkerdome and said, "Want to venture a guess on the odds two weeks ago of Houston and Boston College being in the finals of this tournament? Astronomical."
Indeed, it seemed plenty odd that bracket creep would match the Coogs, who were second in the Southwest Conference and who lost five of six games in midseason, against the Eagles, who had started the year by going 5-6, with five straight losses, and finished fourth in the Big East. Long gone were bracket biggies like Arkansas, DePaul and Tulsa.
Gone, too, were the local Big Eight favorites, Missouri and Kansas State, which had been eliminated by Houston and BC. Ticket scalpers had figured on a Missouri-Kansas State finale, with a resulting avalanche of local adulation. At worst, they knew that at least one of the two would make it. But when BC whipped big but slow K-State 69-65 in the opener and Houston downed the region's top remaining seed, Missouri, 79-78, not only was the Big Eight in mourning but so were the scalpers.
Yet, in fairness, both Houston and BC had found ways to recover from serious difficulties experienced earlier this year and had come on to be as tough as anyone else in the late going—especially lightly regarded BC, which is the last team to have beaten Georgetown, back on Feb. 17.
Houston began the year in grand fashion, winning 12 of 13, but then the Coogs lost their snarl. Finally, after a three-point loss to TCU, the players held a 2 a.m. meeting in a Fort Worth hotel room—no coaches admitted—to discuss what was wrong. One conclusion was that Rob Williams was shooting too much and playing lousy defense. Even though he has led the team in assists for three years, Williams took it in good spirit, and Houston came back with new dedication.
Through it all, Lewis has had to endure the familiar jab that his team is undisciplined and plays in the hully-gully fashion of Houston playgrounds, whence nearly all the Cougars come. In fact, four of the starters hail from within five miles of the campus.
At Boston College, Coach Tom Davis was trying to make do, as usual, with players that nobody else wanted. It took only a few games to find out why. Truth is, BC has only one player who would start on any other major team: junior Guard John Bagley, who looks like a bowling ball with arms but does wondrous things on the court, including averaging 21.1 points a game. His one other scholarship offer was from Central Connecticut State.
Fittingly, the first man to the rescue of the floundering Eagles this season was Guard Michael Adams, a freshman whom nobody had recruited. Assistant Coach Kevin Mackey discovered him not long after BC had failed to keep Pat Ewing, who hails from Cambridge, Mass., at home. "Alums asked me who I got to replace Ewing," says Mackey, "and when I told them a 5'10" guard from the Bellevue Square housing project in Hartford, Conn., who was thought to be too small and too wild, they didn't understand." Nobody understood until a Feb. 6 game against Connecticut. Adams abruptly started passing brilliantly, shooting better and easing the pressure on Bagley. And suddenly, stopping BC was more than stopping Bagley. "I'm quick, accurate and good—for a freshman," says Adams.
But what about some badly needed height? Enter junior John Garris, a 6'8" forward who transferred from Michigan in 1980. Davis saw in Garris "great talent but no passion." And poor defense. After many games in which Garris played little or not at all, he started clicking in February against Providence. His play was crucial in the stretch, and last Friday night against Kansas State, Garris scored 18 points, collected seven rebounds, played creditable defense—and did it all with passion—in his finest performance ever.
On Sunday, however, the Eagles landed. Big, strong, fast and confident, Houston was clearly better than gutsy, scrappy but underclubbed BC. Better by 99-92. Houston played a marvelously disciplined game, patiently bringing the ball up against the much lauded BC press. The Eagles did reduce the deficit to four points with 1:34 left, which gave Houston the chance to knock down the notion it didn't have a bench.
So meet the star of the game, freshman Guard Reid Gettys, who admitted to a feeling of "sheer panic" when he was summoned to action by Lewis with 8:11 to go. That was the proper feeling for him to have, because he had averaged only seven minutes of playing time per game this year—that is, seven minutes in the 18 games in which he played.
All Gettys did was drill 10 straight free throws—three bounces, a deep breath, and bingo! When Houston had a four-point edge with 1:06 left and everyone had sweaty hands, Gettys hit his seventh and eighth in a row, and 25 seconds later, bounce, bounce, bounce, two more. During the entire season he had taken 10 free throws and made eight. His scoring average was 1.8. "I knew my job," said Gettys. "Go out there and keep my poise and not play like a freshman. Heck, I've been shooting free throws since I was six. Anybody off the bench could have done the same thing. Anybody can shoot a free throw."
But what was he doing in the game in the first place? Said Lewis, "We needed a good foul shooter in there."
Gettys' billion-dollar performance stole the spotlight from more renowned Coogs. Junior Center Larry Micheaux scored 14 points in the first half ("I think I'm as good as some pros," he says accurately, if immodestly), and Williams took over in the second half, scoring 19.
If, as Gettys says, anyone can shoot free throws, it would have warmed BC hearts to see Rich Shrigley make a one-and-one with 1:18 to play. If he had, the Eagles would have been only two behind, but they blew other chances as well. Bagley's 26 points weren't enough.
So the Eagles flew home, leaving Davis to think about what might have been in his house on Commonwealth Avenue—situated at the crest of the most famous spot in the Boston Marathon, Heartbreak Hill.