Jerry Tarkanian thought he knew how his Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels would cope with Iowa in the final of the West Regional in Seattle on Sunday. Oh, it wasn't going to be easy: Although the Hawkeyes started a center who would do well to avoid sidewalk grates, they led the nation in rebounding margin this season, never once losing a battle of the boards. And of all the things that worry terry cloth-teething Tark the Shark—and there are many such things—his 37-1 team's ability to rebound leads the list. "We had a hard time beating Irvine and Pacific and Long Beach on the boards," he says. "Even San Jose beat us by 24."
But Tark thought he had Iowa scoped out. He knew the Hawkeyes ran what he calls a "flex" offense, in which their big people came high. That meant that Armon (the Hammer) Gilliam, Tarkanian's only inside force, would be obliged to follow his man-to-man defensive assignment—7-foot Brad Lohaus or 6'5" Roy Marble—out of rebounding position. So Tarkanian told his players to switch men with Gilliam whenever Gilliam's charge advanced as far out as the foul line. That, Tark hoped, would leave the 6'9", 230-pound Hammer inside to pound the glass.
The plan sounded sensible enough. And the Rebs tried it—really they did—for a half. But all that switching left UNLV discombobulated. To be sure, that's no alibi for Vegas's two three-point threats, Freddie Banks and Gerald Paddio, going a combined 1-for-11 from the nether reaches of the Kingdome or for the Hammer having trouble getting the ball on the offensive end. But it may explain why Lohaus scored 10 points, Marble grabbed 6 rebounds, and Hawkeye reserve forward Ed Horton went on an 8-point binge late in the half, which ended with Iowa ahead 58-42 and the Rebels nearly mutinous.
In the locker room, recalls UNLV's Eldridge (El Hud) Hudson, "We were saying, 'Coach, man, let's forget the switchin'. Coach, we got to just pick 'em up!' "
"Yeah, Coach!" called out another one of the Rebels' six seniors.
"Yeah, Coach!" yelled another.
Was this an insurrection? The Run-in Rebels? Hardly. Tark knew he had erred. His players had been switching all half; now he did. "It was my fault," he would say. "We weren't getting beat, we were getting humiliated. I had our guys so screwed up they didn't know when to switch and when not to. Consequently, we were playing soft instead of aggressive."
Still, Vegas looked whipped. Iowa hadn't lost all season when it held the lead at halftime, and here the Hawkeyes were up by 16. And while Vegas had scrambled out of holes on several occasions—from 17 down to Temple, 13 down to Arizona, 21 down to Western Kentucky and 20 down to New Mexico State—Iowa, with a bench as deep as the seat of coach Tom Davis's suit pants, appeared to be invulnerable.
But Banks and Paddio each sank three-pointers in the first five minutes of the second half, and moments later Iowa's Kevin Gamble picked up his fourth foul on a charging call. From there UNLV went on a 19-2 tear, during which Paddio sank three straight treys. Suddenly the Rebels led 71-66. "Even when we were still down," Hudson would say, "Armon's saying to me, 'It's over.' And when the Hammer says, 'It's over,' it's over."