WOOOOO.... PIGS? PHOOEY!
As in next year, when Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon have passed on to the great lottery in the pros; when Greg Anthony has started his campaign for the U.S. Senate; when Jerry Tarkanian has retired to Shark Island, where not even the NCAA can fax him; and when the menacing, mouthy and gloriously skilled UNLV basketball team finally has been broken up. Maybe then the Runnin' Rebels will be beaten.
"They're a great team with great talent. They need to go to the NBA," said Arkansas's suddenly humbled center, Oliver Miller, who had picked his Razorbacks to win Sunday's Poll Bowl by 10 points. As it turned out, the Hogs could only win the first half, 50-46, after which the Rebels were characteristically unfazed. "In the locker room we thought, So what?" said Anthony, a senior guard.
Not long after intermission—two seconds short of two minutes after, to be exact—the alleged showdown between No. 1 UNLV and No. 2 Arkansas at deafening Barnhill Arena in Fayetteville, Ark., was over. That's all the time it took for Tarkanian's veteran legion of runners, arrogant yappers and swarming defenders to make the Razorbacks look like Cal State-Irrelevant. In that stunningly emphatic 1:58, the invaders from Nevada scored 10 straight points before Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, trailing 56-50, was forced to call his first timeout of the half.
In the opening seven minutes of the second half, UNLV scored 29 points, to go up 75-61, before the pink-blazered, black-shirted Richardson, who completed his ensemble with a black tie adorned with pink pig faces, had to call his second timeout—after which the Hogs couldn't even inbound the ball, so they needed yet another timeout. Richardson should have waved a pink-and-black flag.
As the Rebels went on to barbecue their porcine hosts 112-105, their lead never dipped below double figures until Arkansas made a trey at the buzzer. By that time Anthony and his backcourt partner, junior Anderson Hunt, had turned their backs in disdain and were strolling off the court. So much for respect.
Maybe the key factor in the sudden turnaround was Richardson's decision to switch from his usual aggressive press to a passive matchup zone right after intermission. He did so to protect Miller, who had committed two fouls in the first half, but the decision proved to be disastrous.
Maybe the critical factor was the Hog guards' crashing of the offensive boards, which left Arkansas vulnerable to the Rebels' fast break, with Augmon and Hunt leading a sprint relay to the rim. "We didn't think they could run like that," said Arkansas guard Lee Mayberry. Lee! Don't you get cable?
Or maybe the deciding factor was all those Hog-hatted faithful among the crowd of 9,640 who booed Johnson and the rest of the Rebel starters for commiserating with referee Jim Burr after Burr had been body-slammed into the crowd on a play 30 seconds into the second half. The booing might have, uh, porked off the alternately snickering and glowering Johnson. Strangely subdued before half-time—at which point he had all of two baskets—Johnson finished with 25 points, 14 rebounds, at least 114 yammerings and one ejection, for a flagrant technical foul (read: fighting).
Most likely, though, the key factor was this: The quick-handed, oppressive defense that Arkansas terrorizes normal foes with was turned on the Hogs by a bigger, stronger, faster team that plays the same style, only better. In the first half, the 6'9", 288-pound Miller, who finished with 22 points, 14 rebounds and six blocks in an exhausting effort, surprised Vegas with some court-length outlet passes. But.... "I told the team at halftime," said Tarkanian, " 'Let's keep both guards back. And let's not get beat off the dribble.' "
Georgia Tech guard Kenny Anderson had been able to penetrate the Vegas defense in the semifinals of last season's NCAA tournament, and Mayberry and backcourt-mate Todd Day were briefly successful doing the same on Sunday. Eventually, though, the MayDay tandem was helpless, committing 14 of Arkansas's 23 turnovers against a Rebel man-to-man that was unyielding.
Let's get something straight. In this game, as it has been all season long, UNLV's best player was not Johnson but Augmon. While the rest of the Rebs were fumbling through the first half, Augmon scored 19 points in an open-court slicing, dicing, dunking exhibition that was matched by his second-half defensive containment of the explosive Day. Augmon wound up with a game-high 31 points and held Day to one basket in the first 11 minutes of the second half—in other words, the minutes that mattered.
Just because this was another Game of the Millennium—"the hoo-rah pub [for publicity] game," as Miller called it—didn't mean the coaches had to get excited. At least they said they didn't, though Richardson slipped his guard and equated his feelings about the game to the "double-high big time" he had in 1980 when his Western Texas team won the national junior college championship in the same week he got his first Division I job, at Tulsa. "He's not kidding anybody," said Arkansas assistant Scott Edgar. "This is the kind of game we all coach for—live for."
On Saturday, Tarkanian said he hadn't spent "five minutes" thinking about Arkansas. Still, he had held two closed practices in Fayetteville. Closed except, of course, to his eclectic entourage of restaurateurs, casino hosts and assorted showbiz refugees from UNLV's Gucci Row. Some of the visitors seemed either puzzled or bored by the enormous hype surrounding the game. "Am I looking forward to this?" said Johnson, chuckling. "I looked forward to us playing Fresno State this week, too." The Rebels won that game 113-64.
In truth, the good folks of Arkansas were treated to all of the hoops-la that a one-two summit deserved. Probably only one other regular-season game in the history of the sport had received such attention—UCLA versus Houston in the Astrodome in January 1968, the Elvin Hayes-Lew Alcindor classic that lifted the popularity of college basketball to new heights.
In Arkansas's two major dailies, the Gazette and the Democrat, both published in Little Rock, the so-called Burner in the Barn had been the subject of front-page stories for weeks. Television remote units from local stations set up housekeeping around Barnhill Arena from sunrise through the late news. Last Friday night the Rebels' hotel offered a seafood buffet featuring Broiled Shark! Churches moved up services to accommodate the 11:20 a.m. tip-off". Then there were all those tents pitched outside the arena—80 at last sight—wherein Arkansas students bivouacked for as long as a week to grab the unreserved seats. "I told those kids," Miller said before the game, " 'Man, the game's better on TV. You can see replays and go to the fridge.' In class even my professors were asking me for tickets. I said, 'Sure, you give me an A....' "
Tarkanian was also concerned about TV and tickets. Initially, he whined because he thought the hotel would not have ESPN. (It did.) Next he moaned about UNLV's allotment of tickets. "We gave Arkansas 240 when they came to Vegas last year," he said. "We come here, and they pull a quick one on us—70 tickets. Nolan came up with 12 more, but they're spread out everywhere."
"What does he want, a cheering section?" said Richardson.
For all the statistical categories in which they dominate the universe, the Rebels barely edge the Hogs in swagger and palaver. Last Thursday, seconds after their comeback victory over Houston 81-74 on the road, the Razorbacks started oinking all over the place. "Vegas, Vegas," Miller said. "That's all we hear. It's just a name. They ain't played nobody. If we keep them off the offensive boards, we win by 10."
"We're not afraid like everybody else," said Day. "We got 'em in our house. It's time for them to go down."
The next day even the shortest Porker, 5'10" Arlyn Bowers, delivered a Namathian proclamation: "I'm not picking a margin. But we will win. Definitely. I guarantee it." By the time Bowers had fouled out on Sunday with 7:23 to go—this little Piggy went wee-wee-wee all the way home—UNLV was ahead by 20.
Long before that juncture, the Rebels' own jawing, pointing and posturing had grown tiresome. Isn't this team—20-0 and on a 31-game winning streak after Sunday and worthy of comparisons with the great UCLA aggregations of Alcindor and Bill Walton as well as to the last unbeaten college outfit, the 1975-76 Indiana squad—simply too good to carry on like your standard, tacky, no-class bully?
It isn't enough that the Rebels walk out for intros in a slooooow, cocksure strut. It isn't enough that by winning their games by an average of 31.3 points they are on pace to break the NCAA margin-of-victory record. No. What's apparently in the contract is that they must intimidate—"that's a word you writers made up," says Tarkanian—from the opening tap. Johnson and Augmon in particular jabber away in every available face.
On Sunday, Johnson dunked on a breakaway for a 70-61 lead, and then ran over to where Bowers, nine inches and 70 pounds smaller, was sprawled on the floor and angrily waved a finger in his face. With 5:38 left Johnson elbowed Hog sub Clyde Fletcher in the head, drawing blood, while the two jostled for position on a made free throw. At the time, UNLV was ahead by 21, 98-77. Two minutes later Augmon whomped Day with a double forearm to the neck. No wonder. The Rebels' lead had shrunk to 18,104-86.
All of this begat the inevitable, when Johnson and Day, battling for a rebound with 2:27 to go, had to be restrained from tearing each other's heads off—as well as that of referee-peacemaker Jody Silvester. "We didn't get to where we are by being passive," said Anthony afterward. "All our talk is positive talk. Lots of egos are out there. To expect anybody to back down from all this stuff is ludicrous."
As the chips slipped from his shoulder, Anthony, the vice-chairman of the Nevada Young Republicans who has expressed a desire to run for the U.S. Senate, smiled. "We're really improved," he said. "You guys keep underrating us."
"O.K., then somebody starts comparing us with the great teams. We don't talk about that. We know all it takes is for us to stub our toe once, and we'll be history."
More than likely, what this brilliant team will do instead is stub other people's toes—without, let's hope, smashing their faces—and end up making history.