For Loyola Marymount, the word came at 35,000 feet--on a smuggled Watchman TV--that the Lions will play New Mexico State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Friday.

The team was en route to Philadelphia for the funeral today of Hank Gathers. As word of the game filtered through the plane, the reaction was nearly unanimous--Loyola's 11th seeding shows the West Coast Conference still gets little respect, but that being placed in the regional at Long Beach was fortunate.

Or perhaps not. Of the four California teams selected by the NCAA, Loyola was the only one assigned to Long Beach. Could it be the NCAA took the Lions' coast-to-coast round trip for the funeral into account?

Loyola Athletic Director Brian Quinn and Coach Paul Westhead said they had made no appeal to the NCAA. But, Quinn said, "It sounds like (the NCAA) took into consideration the trip we're taking."

Westhead said, "I don't know (if the funeral was considered), they weigh a multitude of factors." But, he added, "the reverse sure is true--they didn't send us to New Jersey. We won't have to get (back) on a plane right away.

"The fact it's in Long Beach is beneficial for this team because of this trip. The fact we play on Friday gives us an extra day of settling in. The element that's most beneficial is playing on Friday."

The Lions (23-5) have been ranked in or near the top 20 most of the season and have been rated as high as 11th in the Sporting News, but that didn't appear to offset the weakness of the WCC in the selection committee's eyes. Two years ago, riding a 24-game winning streak, Loyola was seeded 13th in the West.

"It's the same thing again, how we shouldn't expect more than we're given," said senior guard Jeff Fryer. "Year in and year out they seed us lower than I expect. I guess we have to go out and prove ourselves."

Told of Loyola's seeding, Westhead said, "There must be a lot of great teams in the country." But he said placement in the brackets is inconsequential for all but the highest-seeded teams in each region.

"I never really put too much stock in the seeding unless you're first or second," he said. "Otherwise there's not an easy game or a decided edge. Eleventh or sixth, you have to win that game."

Assistant coach Jay Hillock called the matchup "tough, but a winnable game."

And Quinn said he had previously purchased 1,500 seats in Long Beach on the chance that the Lions would be sent there. "I think it's good for the team," Quinn said. "It will give 'em a chance to be home, and have their friends and family there. That's important at this time."

The Lions, who were among more than 100 who attended services for Gathers Sunday at the Emmanuel Institutional Baptist Church, will return to Los Angeles late tonight. Westhead said the team practiced well over the weekend and appears to be regaining its concentration on basketball.

"The first (practice after Gathers' death) was very emotional, there was too much energy, each pass was too hard, each shot they wanted to dunk," Westhead said. "Since then the concentration has been very good. It's almost like our guys are saying the only thing we can do (to commemorate Gathers) is play basketball, so let's do it well."

Fryer said, "Today we had a great practice. The guys are starting to get back in the groove again."

The winner of the Loyola-New Mexico State game probably will play defending NCAA champion Michigan, seeded third the West in the second round Sunday. The Wolverines open against Illinois State.

The Lions would be happy to be there. In trying to get back to a normal routine, Westhead said, "The two hours we've been on the court have been the best part of our days--a momentary pause of delight."

Neil McCarthy, New Mexico State's coach, said of playing Loyola: "I sympathize with their situation and how they feel. I never met Hank Gathers. I was watching the night they announced on the news he had died. I didn't even know him, and I was depressed for two days. I know he was a great young man . . . (former USC coach) Stan Morrison always spoke so well of him.

"But (feelings about Gathers' death) are something that really shouldn't enter into it on our side. I know they have a great team, and they still have a good team."

Times staff writer Robyn Norwood contributed to this story.

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