Whatever else happens to the Oregon State Beavers this season—and their memorable moments may barely have begun—they will get chills every time they think about the night of Feb. 7. They were home, at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, playing Arizona State for the Pac-10 lead—and perhaps the league title. Both teams had 10-1 conference records, and UCLA (8-4) had been all but put away for good. Aside from the two clubs playing at Gill, only Washington State (9-3) had more than vague hopes of winning the championship. But the evening wasn't going well for the Beavers. It had, in fact, been fairly awful. With less than two minutes remaining in the game, Lafayette Lever of the Sun Devils drove in for a layup that would have put his team 10 points in front. That will do it, Beaver fans. Lights out, good night.
Oops! Lever's layup rolled around and out. "I couldn't believe it," Beaver Guard Mark Radford would say later. "But I got a good feeling."
With that, the whole game turned around. Three times in the ensuing 1:40 Arizona State missed the front end of a one-and-one. Oregon State scored six points. But with 18 seconds to go the Beavers still trailed, 66-64, and Arizona State's 7-foot Alton Lister was at the line for yet another one-and-one. And yet another first-shot miss.
The Beavers got the ball to their big man, 6'10½" Center Steve Johnson. Nine seconds left. Johnson threw up a hook from the key, and no one will ever know if the ball would've dropped. An overanxious Lister swatted it away. Goal-tending. That tied the score 66-66 and sent the game into overtime. Arizona State was through. The Beavers never trailed again in winning 82-75.
Two nights later the Beavers beat Arizona 73-63, no miracles required, although there were moments late in the game when they looked ragged. Ahead 40-27 early in the second half, they let Arizona tie it up at 47-47, but then Johnson, the nation's leader in field-goal percentage, scored 13 of his 28 points to put Oregon State in front for good. Later that day Arizona State squashed Oregon 88-65, but with the Sun Devils facing a more difficult schedule in the weeks to come, it seemed as if Oregon State's one-game lead might hold up. It has been 14 years since the Beavers last won the conference title—UCLA having dominated the league ever since—but now virtually everyone in the small Willamette Valley town of Corvallis is talking about the Orange Express. Next stop, say Beaver fans, is Indianapolis, the final four and a possible national championship. After the Arizona State game, who can doubt them?
Oldtimers around Gill Coliseum say one must go back 25 years to match the excitement this season's team is generating. The hysteria of 1955 reached its zenith in March. There in the finals of the NCAA Western Regional tournament on the Oregon State campus were the Beavers, anchored in the middle by a rarity at that time, an honest-to-goodness seven-footer. This one, Swede Halbrook, in fact stood 7'3". Lining up against Oregon State was the University of San Francisco led by Bill Russell.
A crowd of 11,206 packed Gill for that game, and the place was in an uproar right up until the Beavers' last-second shot bounced off the rim. USF, a 57-56 winner, went on to the national championship.
"We'll never have another crowd quite like the one at the USF game," says Paul Valenti, an assistant coach to Slats Gill that year and now an associate athletic director at Oregon State. "The fire marshal won't let that many people in here anymore, but the crowds now are as noisy and supportive as any I can remember, except for the one that night against the Dons."
And the souvenir business is booming. The items are selling so fast that the hawkers are busy as, well, Beavers. There are T shirts lettered ORANGE EXPRESS; painters' hats with a big No. 1 emblazoned on them; large foam-rubber hands with a finger extended signifying No. 1; and all kinds of standard items such as orange-and-black scarves, banners, shirts and coffee mugs.
Despite all the excitement locally and the Beavers' brilliant 12-1 record in the Pac-10 (22-2 overall), Oregon State's national stature is nearly as shaky as its win over Arizona State. That's another result of past UCLA domination in the conference—a feeling outside the Western ZIP codes that if the Bruins are down this season, the rest of the Pac-10 must be definitely out.