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Indy Qualifying
Alexander Wolff
March 25, 1991
As the race for the Final Four in Indianapolis revved up, UNLV was still in the driver's seat
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March 25, 1991

Indy Qualifying

As the race for the Final Four in Indianapolis revved up, UNLV was still in the driver's seat

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A few things in this world you can count on. For instance, when James Brown was released from prison late last month, he announced, "I feel good." (You knew he would.) Also, when it gets to be March and time for college basketball's Annual Bracket Racket, inexplicable and wondrous things will occur. The mighty will fall to ragamuffins from obscure compass points, an adenoidal ball peen head will go nutso on cable, and some guy with acne from a town with no stoplights will find his three-point stroke and enjoy a Warholian quarter hour of fame.

Givens, all. So how come we're so doleful after the week just past? Lordy, we did get an astonishing first-round upset. Haven't heard of arachnophobia? Just ask Auburn (1984 tournament), Indiana ('88), Georgia Tech ('88) and now Syracuse what it's like to be a high seed in the NCAA basketball tournament and face the Richmond Spiders.

Alas, in the second round nary a single lower-seed team beat a higher seed over 16 games. Of course, this has been a season for favorites anyway. More precisely, for one favorite—UNLV, everybody's choice to retain its title in Indianapolis. Last week gave us a strange sort of Indy qualifying, with teams vying for spots in a race in which the pole position, if not the victor, had been determined long ago.

When UNLV center George Ackles injured his left foot during a 99-65 first-round rout of Montana in Tucson, you could almost sense the rest of the field becoming amateur podiatrists, straining to interpret Ackles's infirmity as a sign that Vegas was vulnerable. So what happens? For UNLV's 62-54 defeat of Georgetown on Sunday someone hands coach Jerry Tarkanian a lug wrench, he bolts 7-foot backup center Elmore Spencer (six blocks) to the chassis, and vrooooom, out of the pits and down the road toward the Final Four goes UNLV.

And yet?

Just when the Rebels were about to lap the field, Georgetown made a run at them in their second-round game out WEST. "What's today, March 16th?" said Hoya coach John Thompson before his matchup with Tarkanian, who had never beaten him. "Our philosophy is more in keeping with yesterday [the Ides of March]. We didn't come to praise Caesar. We came to bury him." Hoya freshman guard Charles Harrison was less literary but no less apt: "If you respect them, they're going to blow you away."

Gamely, the Hoyas dissed Vegas. Midway through the second half, after trailing by as many as 15 points, they pulled to within four, before the Rebels surged once again. Then, in the closing minutes, just before Hoya forward Alonzo Mourning fouled out, Georgetown sliced UNLV's lead to five points. Both Hoya rallies, though, were halted by ill-advised shots by young players, and Georgetown had to settle for becoming only the second team all season to lose to UNLV by a single-digit margin.

Tark had been disappointed by his players' lassitude in their tuneup against Montana. "We were throwing alley-oops from half court and trying to dunk them one-handed," he said. "I told them to cut that crap out." (Tsk, tsk. Now, kids, back to basics: Always dunk your alley-oops from half court with two hands.) And after the Georgetown win, the Sad-Eyed One insisted, "There are probably four or five teams who've played as well as us in the tournament."

Jud Heathcote's Michigan State team would have been next for UNLV had not the Spartans fallen 85-84 to Utah in double OT. Michigan State had edged Wisconsin-Green Bay 60-58 in the first round when star guard Steve Smith nailed a leaning jumper as time expired. Smith immediately ran over to the Fighting Phoenix bench and asked one player, "So, what are your plans for spring break?"

The Spartans missed out on tournament wins in 1986 and '90 because of bizarre time-keeping incidents, but against Utah their luck turned enough to at least buy them a couple of extra periods. First, an unusual off-the-ball foul in the waning moments of regulation gave Michigan State an opportunity to convert a four-point play, which it did to tie the game and force the first OT. Then, a Spartan putback of an intentionally missed free throw with 4.4 seconds remaining in the extra period bought a second reprieve.

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