Jerry Tarkanian thought he knew how his Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels would cope with Iowa in the final of the West Regional in Seattle on Sunday. Oh, it wasn't going to be easy: Although the Hawkeyes started a center who would do well to avoid sidewalk grates, they led the nation in rebounding margin this season, never once losing a battle of the boards. And of all the things that worry terry cloth-teething Tark the Shark—and there are many such things—his 37-1 team's ability to rebound leads the list. "We had a hard time beating Irvine and Pacific and Long Beach on the boards," he says. "Even San Jose beat us by 24."
But Tark thought he had Iowa scoped out. He knew the Hawkeyes ran what he calls a "flex" offense, in which their big people came high. That meant that Armon (the Hammer) Gilliam, Tarkanian's only inside force, would be obliged to follow his man-to-man defensive assignment—7-foot Brad Lohaus or 6'5" Roy Marble—out of rebounding position. So Tarkanian told his players to switch men with Gilliam whenever Gilliam's charge advanced as far out as the foul line. That, Tark hoped, would leave the 6'9", 230-pound Hammer inside to pound the glass.
The plan sounded sensible enough. And the Rebs tried it—really they did—for a half. But all that switching left UNLV discombobulated. To be sure, that's no alibi for Vegas's two three-point threats, Freddie Banks and Gerald Paddio, going a combined 1-for-11 from the nether reaches of the Kingdome or for the Hammer having trouble getting the ball on the offensive end. But it may explain why Lohaus scored 10 points, Marble grabbed 6 rebounds, and Hawkeye reserve forward Ed Horton went on an 8-point binge late in the half, which ended with Iowa ahead 58-42 and the Rebels nearly mutinous.
In the locker room, recalls UNLV's Eldridge (El Hud) Hudson, "We were saying, 'Coach, man, let's forget the switchin'. Coach, we got to just pick 'em up!' "
March 30, 1987
"Yeah, Coach!" called out another one of the Rebels' six seniors.
"Yeah, Coach!" yelled another.
Was this an insurrection? The Run-in Rebels? Hardly. Tark knew he had erred. His players had been switching all half; now he did. "It was my fault," he would say. "We weren't getting beat, we were getting humiliated. I had our guys so screwed up they didn't know when to switch and when not to. Consequently, we were playing soft instead of aggressive."
Still, Vegas looked whipped. Iowa hadn't lost all season when it held the lead at halftime, and here the Hawkeyes were up by 16. And while Vegas had scrambled out of holes on several occasions—from 17 down to Temple, 13 down to Arizona, 21 down to Western Kentucky and 20 down to New Mexico State—Iowa, with a bench as deep as the seat of coach Tom Davis's suit pants, appeared to be invulnerable.
But Banks and Paddio each sank three-pointers in the first five minutes of the second half, and moments later Iowa's Kevin Gamble picked up his fourth foul on a charging call. From there UNLV went on a 19-2 tear, during which Paddio sank three straight treys. Suddenly the Rebels led 71-66. "Even when we were still down," Hudson would say, "Armon's saying to me, 'It's over.' And when the Hammer says, 'It's over,' it's over."
Gamble did drain a three-pointer to bring Iowa to within 82-81 with 35 seconds left, and the Hawkeyes' press induced a UNLV 10-second violation, providing Iowa with one last shot at the lead. But Gamble's alley-oop lob for Lohaus misfired off the backboard, and Vegas co-captain Gary Graham sank both ends of a one-and-one to seal an 84-81 victory. "I think we wanted it a lot more," Gilliam said. "They had us down and got real soft. They weren't fighting like us. Big game like this, you got to fight like a dogfight."
Said Davis, with rueful understatement, "With two running, pressing teams, you will see some shifts in momentum."
Iowa had ridden just such a shift in its 93-91 semifinal defeat of Oklahoma in overtime. The Hawkeyes wiped out a 37-21 first-half deficit with a 19-0 spurt, during which Sooners coach Billy Tubbs sat back in a zone (foul trouble, he said, left him no choice) and let TV call the only timeout. Yet Oklahoma regained the lead after intermission, thanks to Tim McCalister. The Sooner guard tossed in five second-half three-pointers.
Oklahoma held a five-point lead with 2:05 remaining. And even after Iowa's B.J. Armstrong sent the game into OT with a long trey, the Sooners led 91-90 in the final minute of the extra period. But Oklahoma let two defensive rebounding opportunities go by the boards in the last 40 seconds, and Armstrong found Gamble at the top of the circle for the three-pointer that put the Hawkeyes in the final.
The Rebels had an easier time with Wyoming in the other semi. Cowboy center Eric Leckner drew his third foul with 11:49 to go in the first half, and fabulous Fennis Dembo, who would score 27 points while sustaining a lively dialogue with the UNLV bench, couldn't carry the Dogies and their 39-38 half-time lead the rest of the way.
After his two victories, Tarkanian wouldn't talk about something that's no doubt embarrassing to him, namely a question recently posed by CBS's Brent Musburger: "Can Jerry Tarkanian coach?" If Musburger, like Iowa's Davis, had written a Ph.D. dissertation on sports history, he might realize that such a question is inane. Tarkanian's .827 winning percentage is unmatched among active coaches. Before assembling the talent with which to run at Vegas, he won at Long Beach State playing walk-it-up. Tark even has the good sense to listen to his seniors at halftime. Says Gilliam, "For someone to say something like that is really out of line."
And when the Hammer says it's out of line, it's out of line.