Rebels With A Cause Making up for recent disasters in the NCAAs, UNLV went all the way last week

June 07, 1998

UNLV coach Dwaine Knight practically oozes corn. When he
smiles--which is often--his lips curl back so far they disappear
into his gums. He starts every third sentence, "Gosh, I
mean...." To hear him talk, you would think there's no mountain
of adversity that can't be scaled with a platitude or a proverb.
"You have to be willing to suffer to reach something great,"
Knight says. "Suffering helps you build character. If you
develop character, you can have hope. If you have hope, you have
everything."

O.K., he's no Patton, but the man might be on to something.
After all, if you're going to ply your trade in Sin City, you
had best have your wits about you when the chips are down.
Knight's players certainly did last week in Albuquerque, where
they won the school's first NCAA golf title, at the University
of New Mexico Championship Course. The Rebels, who have been the
nation's top-ranked team since February, entered last Saturday's
final round with a 10-stroke cushion over Clemson, but had to
grind out the last few holes to win by three. Corny aphorisms
aside, this particular group of golfers has done more than its
share of suffering the last few years, which only served to
render its achievement all the more satisfying. "Sometimes you
have to hit rock bottom before you can appreciate something like
this," said junior Chris Berry, who was 16 under par for the
four days and finished in a four-way tie for second in the
individual competition.

It was fitting that Berry turned out to be the difference for
UNLV, because two years ago at this event he was the poster
child for pain. Not only did he go 56 over at the Honors Course
in Chattanooga, to finish dead last, but he also had to watch
his teammates--without his help in the five-play, four-count
format--gain a tie for the lead with three holes to play, only
to lose to Arizona State by three strokes. "That was probably
the worst experience in my life," Berry says. This time he got
to play the hero. UNLV had only two scores over par during the
first three rounds last week, but Berry's 67 was the Rebels'
only sub-par score on Saturday. "I wanted to win this for
Coach," he said afterward. "I owed him one."

The NCAAs were UNLV's school-record seventh tournament victory
this spring, but most of the Rebels believe that this team is
not as talented as the '97 edition that also entered the NCAAs
as the No. 1 seed but somehow shot 17 over par during the first
two rounds and missed the cut by six shots, marking only the
second time in the history of the event that the top seed didn't
make it to the third round. "I can remember sitting by the 18th
green with a towel over my head so no one could see me crying,"
says UNLV sophomore Jeremy Anderson. "It's a feeling I wouldn't
wish on anyone."

How different were things this year? UNLV's two-round total of
23 under tied the NCAA four-round record, held by Stanford and
Arizona. "I saw they were at 20 under [for the tournament], and
my jaw dropped," said Georgia Tech freshman Bryce Molder after
the second round. Even with Saturday's stumble the Rebels
shattered the tournament record by 11 strokes, finishing at 34
under. Low scores were par for the course. Georgia Tech, led by
Molder's 15 under and U.S. Amateur champ Matt Kuchar's 12 under,
was third at minus-30, and the fourth-place finisher, Oklahoma
State, also broke the four-round record, by two strokes.

No golfer was more impressive than Minnesota freshman James
McLean, a 19-year-old Australian who shot a 17-under 271 to win
the individual title. McLean, whose father, Graham, played
Australian rules football professionally, didn't arrive in
Minneapolis until December because he was finishing a stint at
the Australian Institute of Sport. "When I left home in
Melbourne, it was 120 degrees," he says. "I got off the plane
wearing shorts and a T-shirt. When the cold air hit me, it was a
shock."

After three-putting the 18th on Saturday for bogey and a 69,
McLean figured he might be in a playoff and headed for the
driving range. His excruciating 11/2-hour wait there ended when
the last of his challengers, defending champ Charles Warren of
Clemson, missed a 20-foot birdie attempt. Finally McLean could
call his parents back in Melbourne, where it was 8 a.m. "G'day,
Dad," he said. "Guess what? I won."

Knight has longed to say those words for 20 years. It was a
strange turn that he would win a championship at New Mexico,
where he had played for four years and coached for 10. Knight,
50, left for Las Vegas in the fall of '87 largely because he
believed that the school and the city were eager to support a
topflight program. He has since persuaded local businesses to
create a $3.5 million endowment, the interest from which pays
for the program's expenses, save for coaches' salaries.

Twice in the last six years Knight has flirted with other
schools, most recently with Texas last fall. (Tom Kite
personally tried to recruit Knight.) Though he says his interest
in the Texas job was not related to a desire to win a national
championship, Knight concedes that his failures in the
postseason were starting to eat away at him. "When you get so
close to something but don't win it, it's tough," he says.

An hour or so after the tournament, the Rebels were posing for a
photo underneath a scoreboard when an announcement came over the
P.A. "Coach Knight, Steve Wynn is on the phone, long distance."
Knight instinctively started to get up to answer the page, but
Anderson would have none of it. "Tell him to wait," he said, and
everyone laughed. Then they all bounded back to the 18th green
to pose for another picture. On a phone Wynn was waiting, but
the Rebels were determined to have their moment. For once, the
rest of the world would have to suffer.

COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL GREAT SAVE Until Berry came through with his final-round 67, UNLV was flirting with another crash landing. [Chris Berry golfing out of bunker] COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL FROSTY RECEPTION McLean, a freshman from Australia who led the Big Ten in scoring, was shocked when he arrived in Minnesota. [James McLean golfing]

"When you get so close to something but don't win it, it's
tough," Knight says.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)