Cal State Fullerton, a mediocre college basketball team coming off its two best games of the season, met Nevada Las Vegas, a very good team coming off one of its worst games, at the Forum Saturday afternoon in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. tournament championship. So much for theories about momentum.
The Rebels, ranked 10th and 11th in the wire-service polls, threw an aggressive man-to-man defense at the Titans and ran away with 79-61 victory that was decided in the first five minutes.
UNLV took a 16-4 lead, and when Eldridge Hudson tossed a no-look, between-the-legs pass to Ed Catchings, who dropped in a layup, it was 28-9 with 9:23 remaining in the half.
This one was all over--including the shouting. The usually rabid Rebel boosters were reduced to rooting for seldom-used reserves to score. Fullerton was never closer than 12 points after the first eight minutes.
"We played super in the first half, especially on defense," Las Vegas Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "We made a big issue about the lack of intensity yesterday (Friday, when the Rebels escaped with a 60-59 semifinal win over San Jose State). We chewed them out pretty good. I think they knew we were lucky to win that game, and it made a big difference today."
Fullerton Coach George McQuarn, whose team greatly exceeded preseason expectations and finished third in the conference standings, saw things much the same way as Tarkanian.
But then, this was not a difficult game to analyze. The most casual observer of college basketball in the crowd of 10,847 would have to agree with McQuarn when he said, "We got our butts kicked."
"They took us out of our offense very, very early," said McQuarn, a former assistant under Tarkanian at UNLV. "I think this should explode the myth that they don't play defense. We had a difficult time running any kind of offense. They dropped their defensive intensity in the second half, and we played even with them. . . but it was too late, then."
Much too late.
Only Titan guard Kevin Henderson, who Tarkanian says has developed into "maybe the best guard on the West Coast," was able to get off a decent shot in the first half. He had 14 points at halftime, but no other Fullerton player had more than one basket before the intermission.
"I think Fullerton caught us when our kids were hungry," Tarkanian said. "If we had played well last night and beaten San Jose by 10 or 12, this game probably would have been a struggle. But we convinced them that they owed the community and the fans (about 5,000 scarlet-clad UNLV boosters attended the tourney) an intense performance."
Fullerton may have run up against the Rebels at the wrong time, but after the display of talent UNLV exhibited Saturday, it doesn't seem likely that the Titans could have pulled off an upset under any conditions. After all, Fullerton had upset Fresno State, 56-54, in the semifinals Friday night, was playing its best basketball of the year recently and was fully aware of its "once-in-a-lifetime shot at the NCAAs," as McQuarn put it.
But Las Vegas' depth was most evident Saturday. Put that together with with two-time PCAA Player of the Year and tournament MVP Richie Adams (23 points, 14 rebounds), and Anthony Jones (18 points on 9-of-13 shooting), and the Rebels were too much for Fullerton.
Adams has perfected a "snatch-and-throw" offense that leaves defenders wondering where the ball went and how it ended up in the basket. At least four times Saturday, he wrenched an errant pass or loose ball away from a crowd of Titans and then popped up to throw the ball down through the hoop.
Few players get up as quickly--or as high--as Adams.
Jones finished with five assists, two blocked shots, two steals and six rebounds to go with his 18 points. Catchings came off the bench to grab seven rebounds and hit 5 of 8 shots for 13 points. Hudson had five rebounds, five assists and four points.
"If they hadn't jumped on us early, we might have stayed in the game longer, and the people in the arena might have thought we had a chance longer," McQuarn said, "but they still would have beaten us by 10 or 12 on their offensive play alone.
"I'm worried that the first half may have hurt our chances for an NIT bid."
The Titans, who finished 17-13, are hoping the expanded NCAA format will open up a spot for them in the National Invitation Tournament, but McQuarn realizes that Fullerton's lack of a following and a large facility will be disadvantages when the economics-conscious NIT makes its selections tonight after the NCAA pairings are announced.
UNLV (27-3) is anxiously awaiting its tournament seeding. Tarkanian says he only hopes the Rebels will stay out West.
"Momentum is something some writer invented that everyone else picked up on," Tarkanian said. "We're starting over now, the score's 0-0. To win this thing (the NCAA tournament), you have to be lucky . . . unless you're Georgetown."