WIldcats left trail of omens for Tigers

(Published in Daily News, April 1, 1985)

"If they're a Cinderella team, then Cinderella wears boots."

- Dana Kirk, Memphis State coach

LEXINGTON, Ky. - At halftime, Dana Kirk had to know that his Memphis State Tigers were in trouble.

The score was MSU 23, Villanova 23, but that wasn't the problem. On a day of bad omens for the Tigers - a day that ended with Villanova's 52-45 victory in the NCAA semifinals - the stat sheet was full of bad news.

Memphis State was shooting only 40 percent, and that wasn't good. But Villanova was shooting only 41 percent, so it wasn't a disaster.

The Tigers would end up with all kinds of people in foul trouble, but that wasn't the problem at halftime, either. All-America forward Keith Lee had two fouls, and so did center William Bedford, but that was hardly disastrous for a team that had been fighting the whistles all tournament.

No, the bad omen was rebounding. The Tigers had a terrific edge, 22-11. Vincent Askew, a guard, had more offensive rebounds (five) than Villanova center Ed Pinckney had rebounds (four). The domination was total.

And still, it was 23-23 at the half.

"Up 22-11 in the rebounds like that," Kirk said. "But then you look at what the score was ... "

Yeah, he knew. And in the early minutes of the second half, he and the roaring mob from Memphis - certainly the loudest and largest portion of the sellout crowd at Rupp Arena - found out the rest.

Lee, as he has done all tournament, got into foul trouble. He took a seat with No. 4 with 15:32 left and the Tigers trailing by one, 32-31. Soon, they were down by six, 39-33, when Harold Pressley scored on a reverse, scoop layup that was worthy of an NBA highlight film.

Lee came back and immediately committed No. 5. Out, with 10:21 to go. Out, with the Tigers down by eight, 41-33.

Out, with the Wildcats doing some rebounding.

Out, with the Wildcats hitting some shots.

Out, more importantly, with the Wildcats playing defense. Rather, the 10 or 11 variations of the defense that had the papers here talking about how the Wildcats win ugly.

"We look bad, but we make the other team look worse," Pressley said. "Our plan is to frustrate the other team as much as possible with our offense and with our defense. We did it to Memphis State both ways."

On Saturday, Pressley was the epitome of winning ugly. His box score shooting line was one for the Horrible Hall of Fame - 1-for-8 from the field (that highlight job). But he ended up with six rebounds - five in the second half, four on the offensive boards, all of them big. It was the best 1-for-8 you ever saw.

So Lee was out and 'Nova was flying and doing everything that 'Nova likes to do, and everything was looking great. And then, under that ideal circumstance, the eight-point lead turned into a zero-point lead. For the millionth time this season, Villanova turned cold. The Wildcats went 7 minutes, 17 seconds without a point.

"We got a little bogged down," said Rollie Massimino, the Villanova coach. "We became a little tentative ... We let down a bit. This was such a big game. They couldn't believe it (the eight-point lead) at the time. We got a little complacent.

"We could have exploded down the stretch and got nervous, but we kept our poise."

Mostly, it was Dwayne McClain who kept it for them. While Ed Pinckney was playing despite a virus that sent him wretching to the bench several times in the second half, McClain kept cool. His two free throws with 3:04 left broke the drought and put Villanova back in front for good, 43-41.

He now is 17-for-17 from the line in the postseason. That includes two free throws earlier in the second half that rightfully belonged to Pressley. It was Pressley who was fouled by Lee (No. 5), but it was McClain who was sent to the line.

"I could've used the two points," Pressley said, "but Dwayne has been shooting outstandingly in the tournament so I let him do it."

Meanwhile, the psychological killer came with 2:03 left, also courtesy of McClain. Coming from the right baseline, he swooped in and slammd down the killer points and a 45-41 lead.

"They left the baseline open," McClain said, "so I just took it to the basket ... But I still wasn't sure we'd win. Not then."

But then the Wildcats went to their spread offense, and it really was over.

"The only thing I can say is that's history," Kirk said. "I look forward to the clock (in the NCAA tournament) next year. I think the fans want to be entertained more."

So there you have it. Last week, Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs ripped Kirk for slowing a game down. Saturday, Kirk ripped Massimino for slowing a game down. Last month, Massimino ripped Jim Boyle of St. Joseph's for slowing a game down. Coaches are so consistent.

Anyway, the fact is that Massimino never deflated the ball against Memphis State. The Wildcats were patient, sure, but it would really be hard to point to a possession that lasted more than 45 seconds.

Not until the last two minutes or so, when he was protecting that lead, did Massimino really pull out the ball.

And that was the last bad omen, in boots.