Cure for an Upset Team: USD Still Gets NCAA Bid

Times Staff Writer

After an agonizing weekend in San Francisco, the University of San Diego basketball team came home Sunday and learned that it hadn't blown its shot at the NCAA tournament after all.

The Toreros, who were upset by Pepperdine, 64-63, in the semifinals of the West Coast Athletic Conference tournament Friday night, were fearful of being passed over by the NCAA.

Instead, they were overjoyed to find out that they have been seeded ninth in the Midwest Regional and will play eighth-seeded Auburn Thursday in Indianapolis.

Learning of their fate wasno simple matter for the Toreros (24-5), who were left to their own news-gathering devices because the announcement of the tournament seedings was not televised live here.

Coach Hank Egan, who is headed for his first NCAA tournament in a 16-year college career, had all but given up before he received a succession of phone calls from friends informing him of the good news at about 2:40 Sunday afternoon.

The school's athletic director, Father Patrick Cahill, had asked a friend in Chicago to call him, but he learned of the NCAA bid on a call from the USD sports information director.

Center Scott Thompson and forward Steve Krallman, two of the four seniors who were members of the school's only previous NCAA tournament team in 1984, discovered that they were bound for Indianapolis when they ducked into a sports bar at mid-afternoon.

"Just as we were walking in, the girl was changing the channel on the TV when they showed our bracket," Thompson said. "I turned to Steve and said, 'Hey, I wonder if that's the girls' NIT or something.' Then everybody was buying us beer to celebrate."

En route to the bar, Thompson and Krallman had passed teammate Nils Madden, another senior who was part of the NCAA team that was defeated by Princeton, 65-56, three years ago.

"He was on his bike, drinking a big soft drink," Thompson said. "He looked like he was reflecting on what had happened or something. Nils didn't find out we were going until we got home."

Another player, guard Danny Means, nearly slept through a 4 p.m. team meeting. After being summoned to the USD Sports Center, he was tossed into the outdoor pool.

The atmosphere was markedly different from what it had been in the wake of the loss to Pepperdine two days earlier.

The Toreros, the WCAC regular-season champions, would have received an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs if they had won their league tournament, but they were skeptical, at best, after losing to Pepperdine.

"I felt miserable; I was just petrified," Egan said, reflecting on the aftermath of the Pepperdine defeat. "I went down to the Wharf (in San Francisco) and did what tourists do, but I don't remember any of it. After that loss, I just had a hole in my stomach. I was afraid our kids wouldn't get what they deserved."

As it developed, the Toreros needn't have worried so much about their fate, since they were the ninth-seeded team in the Midwest, indicating that the NCAA selection committee held them in fairly high regard. Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick, who had predicted the Toreros would be invited even after his team's upset victory, proved correct.

"I just wish I'd known that," the relieved Egan said. "I see this as reward for our team playing so hard this year. I think we earned this and we belong in the top 64."

There was pressure before the Pepperdine game in San Francisco, stemming from USD's 14-game winning streak and the belief that it had to win the tournament to make the NCAA field.

Now, however, much of that pressure has been relieved, and the Toreros expect to play at their best against Auburn.

"I think we felt we had to win the WCAC tournament, and as a result we played tight," Egan said. "I tried, but didn't do such a good job of getting our players to believe there was pressure on the other teams too. We had played at a certain level for so long, and keeping there was hard, a burden.

"Now I think we can relax a little. This should give us a chance to play better. I don't think we have peaked yet. We don't have the ratings and rankings of some other teams, but we're a good team. I just want us to come out of this feeling we played the best basketball of our lives."

Thompson said the Toreros won't be in awe when they enter the Hoosier Dome for their Thursday game.

"The rims are still 10 feet high and the free-throw line is 15 feet from the basket," he said. "There's less pressure on us now. The monkey is off our backs. It's all-out now. We're not a team that's just happy to be making the NCAAs. We want to play hard and do our best."

Thompson, the WCAC player of the year, said the NCAA tournament is "like a dream, something that happens to somebody else . . . except it's happening to us."

Cahill thinks of it in a similar vein--as a chance for a small, little-known basketball school to get some national recognition.

"It's also a further justification of what we said three years ago, that you can hold high standards and do well," he said. "It justifies what we've been preaching. Santa Clara (the WCAC tournament champion and also in the NCAA field) is likewise an academically oriented institution."

Even if the Toreros last only one game, the trip to Indianapolis should be worth about $200,000, with 60% to the WCAC and 40% to the school, according to Cahill. The money would go into the university's general budget, not specifically to the athletic department.

Finances of a decidedly lesser order were in Cahill's thoughts until he learned of the NCAA berth.

"Frankly, I was to the point where I thought it would be a nice consolation prize to get an NIT invitation," he said. "My mind-set was that I would be happy with the NIT, and I was already working out the per diems in my head."

As Cahill spoke, he was nearly drowned out by the sound of cheering from USD players in a team meeting.

As pleased as he was for the athletes, he seemed even happier for Egan.

"I can't speak for Hank, but this has to be one of the happiest moments of his life," Cahill said. "He's been through a lot of wars, and this is a real tribute. After the agony we went through after Friday night, I just can't imagine many happier moments."

There are 63 other teams that share in the happiness, and Cahill would like to see the NCAA throw open the gates and invite everybody, just as they do in high school state tournaments in Indiana and Illinois.

"There's certainly the Cinderella element for some of us," he said, smiling.

For the moment, Cahill and the Torerors could overlook the presence of Indiana, the Midwest's top seed. Should USD beat Auburn, it would have to play Indiana in its next game, but why worry about that now? The Toreros have had enough on their minds lately.

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