The Midwest Regional at the Arena in St. Louis began as the Ray Meyer Sentimental Journey and ended up as the Akeem Abdul Olajuwon In-Your-Face Invitational. Houston had just enough Akeem to win this regional for the third straight year, but it's going to need a keener supporting cast to win ol' Guy V. Lewis, the venerable coach who's not retiring, his first NCAA title.
Olajuwon took the high road, converting 23 of 33 shots from the floor (including his first 13 in the final), scoring 54 points and grabbing 25 rebounds as the Cougars swept by Memphis State 78-71 in the semifinals and Wake Forest 68-63 in Sunday's final. Teammate Michael Young took the low road, missing 28 of 40 field-goal attempts in the two games and helping to keep Wake Forest in contention in the final by clanging the front end of three one-and-ones down the stretch.
And Meyer took the exit road, watching in agony as his team blew an eight-point lead to Wake Forest in the final 3:08 of their semifinal before losing 73-71 in overtime. The Blue Demons, 27-2 going in, had been the very model of composure all season, so it was doubly tough on Meyer to see his 1,078th career game end up ignominiously, like so many other DePaul postseason failures. Turnovers by Jerry McMillan, Kenny Patterson and Kevin Holmes in the last minute of regulation gave Wake three chances to tie the game. Delaney Rudd's 20-footer at 0:01 did it. Then, when Deacon guard Danny Young squeezed his way around Dallas Comegys for the buzzer-beating winning basket, Meyer leaped off his chair and threw up his hands in frustration. But he collected himself, as he always had throughout his distinguished career, and headed toward a sea of sobbing DePaul loyalists.
"Well, I guess we'll be able to use a couple of those retirement trips now," said Marge Meyer. But her husband surely would've preferred a trip to Seattle and a shot at the NCAA title, which had eluded him for 42 years.
Meanwhile, the planet quivers in anticipation of a collision in the final between Olajuwon and either Georgetown's Patrick Ewing or Kentucky's twin-tower tandem of Melvin Turpin and Sam Bowie. That's assuming, of course, that Houston gets by Virginia in the semifinals.
Houston beat—and beat up—the Cavaliers 74-65 on Feb. 18 in a game in which Olajuwon suddenly turned ugly and threw an elbow into the throat of Cavalier center Olden Polynice as they ran downcourt. Though he apologized, there's no reason to believe Olajuwon will be very nice to Polynice this time around, either. Akeem, normally a dream with reporters, was Ewing-like in his intensity in St. Louis, refusing pregame interviews and exhorting his teammates with an uncustomary pep talk before the Wake game. "I wanted them to know how much it means to get back to the Final Four," he said.
A shroud of Hoya-like secrecy surrounded Houston all week. The Cougars posted their own security forces at an undisclosed hotel (flash: it was the Breckenridge Concourse at the airport), and will do the same in Seattle. Team officials said the main reason for this precaution was to keep out player agents, who hounded members of the Phi Slamma Jamma fraternity throughout last year's tournament.
There's a little more Phi and a little less Slamma Jamma on this year's Houston team. Guards Reid Gettys and Alvin Franklin have a tighter hold on the reins than they did last year, and Franklin in particular has matured into a far more skillful driver. Believe it or not, the Cougars actually play under control most of the time. But when they need help in a hurry, they still rely on Olajuwon's power game. The simple fact is that Houston hasn't missed the departed Clyde Drexler and Larry Micheaux because Olajuwon is that much more of a force than he was a year ago. Cases in point:
•Memphis State trails Houston by only 54-52 with about 11 minutes left in Friday's semifinal. The Tigers collapse when Akeem gets the ball inside, but he finds freshman forward Rickie Winslow all alone to make it 56-52. Thirty seconds later Akeem takes a pass on the break from Winslow and turns it into a three-point play to put Houston ahead 59-52. The closest Memphis State can get after that is three points as its entire front line—All-America Keith Lee, all-freshman William Bedford and all-name Baskerville Holmes—eventually fouls out.
•Wake Forest trails Houston by 63-55 with 2:22 left. The Deacons need a big play, and their superb sophomore forward, Kenny Green, whose leaping ability and baseline play stamp him as a future Dominique Wilkins, takes it to the hoop. Olajuwon, who had already scored 29 points and would finish with 12 rebounds and three blocks, rises above him and, as easily as a 7-foot man lifts a book off the top shelf, Olajuwon takes the ball away from Green.
Wake stayed in the game after that primarily because Young missed those front ends at 1:30 and 1:03; later, he'd miss with 23 seconds left, and wind up 1 of 6 from the line and 7 of 18 from the field. Ugly numbers for the man who's supposed to be the senior leader. Better numbers (22 points, 18 rebounds) came from freshman forward Rickie Winslow, who played 36 minutes in both games and will have to give Olajuwon similar help in Seattle, and Franklin (24 points against Memphis State, only one turnover against Wake).
But Akeem was the name on everyone's lips in St. Louis. If Ray Meyer took a large chunk of basketball history with him into retirement, Akeem brings a big chunk of its future with him to Seattle.