Learning from tourney past to shape the now

THE MELTDOWN OF A very good basketball team on a late-winter afternoon 27 years ago in Indiana is hardly unique. It's just part of the collective madness of March. It's personal only when the dream is your dream. When it goes poof it's your team and your career that cease to matter. Terry Kelly co-captained the 1979-80 Cougars, the first team from WSU to reach the NCAA Tournament in 39 seasons.

Thirty-nine years of discouragement had suddenly burst into a string of successes when the Cougars went 22-5 in the regular season, beating UCLA, winning seven of their last nine and producing Pac-10 Player of the Year Don Collins.

Yet they are remembered, if they're remembered at all, as the model victim, as the talent that fell prey to the plodder, one of the multitude in this signature event with shoulda/coulda stamped all over their resume.

So much had to go so wrong almost all at once for the fifth-seeded Cougars to go down on that March day in West Lafayette. The first-round loss to the Penn Quakers, a team with 11 losses next to their name, was an unacceptable fall from grace.


DON COLLINS

Now that the Cougs are headed for the Big Dance again, for the first time in 13 seasons, Kelly is the one to go to for some understanding of what's at stake here. It has taken years for him to fully grasp the enormity of the tournament challenge.

It's just a basketball game. Except when it isn't. When it's the best year of your life replaying itself from time to time in heightened promise that always gives way, in Kelly's story, to the bitter ending.

When he thinks about it, as he has this year with the Cougs finally back on the tournament trail, Kelly takes on the past and sees a big finger -- his own finger -- pointing directly at him.

He was the premier long-distance shooter. The ball was in his hands.

"We let down in that game," he said.

After being tied at 27 at the half, the Cougs jumped out to a 10-point lead -- and then it came undone.

"You want to make it special and we let down. We could have played harder. I could have played harder. Looking back, I could have made some plays."

It doesn't make it any easier that you need both hands to point all the fingers that need pointing at that debacle. The star, Collins, fouled out with 3:47 left. When he departed, the Cougars crumbled.

The center, massive Stuart House, all but disappeared. The guards didn't take it to the hole. Nobody could hit a free throw.

The Quakers spread the floor, ran traps, did the Ivy League shuffle. How many times since have we seen an Ivy League champ hang in with patience, with backdoor passes, with careful shot selection and clinging defense?

Last year's Penn team, seeded 15th in the tournament, nearly knocked off No. 2 Texas. It was a year when Kansas lost to Bradley, a four seed humbled by a 13. Bradley stormed the court while another Goliath exited the stage, grimly to live down blame and recrimination.

Those are themes Kelly touched on when he went before Tony Bennett's Cougars a couple of weeks back to applaud their success and style, and perhaps to speak a warning.


STUART HOUSE

"The point I wanted to convey is that they're facing an experience they'll draw on for the rest of their lives," said Kelly, a Spokane attorney who still has his NCAA Tournament participation certificate framed and fixed to his office wall.

"It's something that stays with you always. Make it special."

Kelly has yet to look at the tape of the broadcast of the 1980 Penn game, which ended 62-55. "I know it's not going to look any prettier," he said. "I remember the shots I took in the second half that didn't go in. I remember the feeling in Spokane the next afternoon. Everybody was disappointed."

The Cougars could have used the shot clock that came to college basketball later in the decade, and the three-point shot, too. Kelly himself might have loaded up on threes. The three-pointer wasn't part of the game then.

His career high -- 30 against Idaho -- might have been off the charts. How many 30 and even 40-point games might he have manufactured if ball movement had been inside-out, like now, to the guard shooting the three ball?

That's an unknown, unlike the last game of that season of blunted potential.

"We had good team speed, we ran the court, we pressed, we had good shooters inside and out," Kelly remembered. "We were viewed as a team capable of doing very well in the tournament. When Penn came out they looked like a junior college team. Nothing was what I expected. The lighting was different in that arena, dimmer. It was a day game. The arena was slow in filling up. The crowd rooted for neither team. I remember thinking, ‘This is the NCAA?'"

"I'd love to have the chance to do it over. Although I took pride in always playing hard I guarantee I'd do more. More aggressive passing. We got tentative, protecting a lead. They took us out of our normal flow. I probably went 6-7 minutes without a shot. With that half-court trap I was way out up top. When I did shoot I was taking shots I wasn't used to taking.

The unraveling became uncontrolled "when we lost Collins," Kelly said. "We needed to fall back on discipline and togetherness. We didn't have it."

TODAY, SIMILARITIES IN the two Washington State tournament teams come up, not the least of which is the fact this year's Cougar also are facing a low-seed in the first-round opponent. One difference is glaring, at least from a 27-year perspective.

"The difference is that nobody plays better together and relies on each other like this team does," Kelly said of today's Cougs. "With their structure they're capable of upsetting anybody they play."

The shock of a huge loss never wears off, although time and perspective do temporize. "You eventually realize that not all things are meant to work out the way we want them to," Kelly said. "You understand that a lot of good things had to happen for you to get that far."

Kelly's playing career, although untimely ended, had an effect on Greater Spokane League basketball. John Stockton and Adam Morrison would follow. So would state championship teams from Spokane's Ferris High School. College coaches can't ignore Spokane players -- girls and boys.

Terry Kelly set the trend to respectability in motion. WSU plucked him out of Gonzaga Prep without a whole lot of high hopes, despite the fact he was the state's leading scorer as a senior and, at the time, widely considered the finest prep basketball player ever to come out of the Lilac City.

Cougar coach George Raveling said that if he'd known Kelly would start so soon and so often he would have recruited him harder.

"For a 6-foot-1 guy from Spokane to play at that high a level was very fulfilling to me," Kelly said. "Playing at UCLA, to go up against them and to be significant at that level was my personal highlight.

"Having done that and now being a fan of WSU I have more of an appreciation of the impact winning has on the community. The whole fan base, the students, the administration – this impacts feelings at all levels of the community. It's important to all of us here."

OTHER THAN THE high stakes and the round ball, today's game is not same one that Kelly played. "I'm amazed how much contact there is at the guard position," he said. "There's always been a lot of contact inside but now, when you watch Low (WSU guard Derrick Low) and Afflalo (UCLA's Aaron) and Weaver (WSU's Kyle), those guys are banging out on the wing. I'm impressed how hard they play, how aggressive their game is. When I played it was all about creating space. Now it's more about closing space."

A game of offense has evolved into a test of defenses, "getting into them, bumping, pushing, holding," Kelly said. "I was impressed with a team as talented as UCLA, playing has hard as it did. Afflalo banged and Low didn't flinch."

Sort of like the 1980 Penn Quakers maybe?

In the aftermath of that one the Cougars were too stunned to cry. "I remember coach Raveling saying he was disappointed that he didn't see any tears in the locker room," Kelly said. "Looking back now, knowing how the feelings would linger, that might have given rise to some tears."

1979-80 Cougars
AT A GLANCE
RECORD:
22-6 overall, 14-4 (3rd place) in conference

HEAD COACH:
George Raveling

BIG WINS:
Knocked off conference champion and No. 4 ranked Oregon State and beat UCLA (the eventual NCAA tourney runner-up) for the first time in 14 years.

THE STAR:
Senior wingman Don Collins, later a first-round draft pick by Atlanta Hawks, was named Pac-10 Player of the Year after leading the league in scoring with 23.1 points per game – the highest conference average since Bill Walton in 1972. He also set WSU single-season records for steals.

THE HOUSE:
6-11 senior center Stu House, later a Harlem Globetrotter, was honorable mention all-conference after blocking 69 shots and averaging 13.1 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.

THE POINT:
Senior point guard Bryan Rison earned first-team all-Pac-10 honors. He finished with 100 assists, 70 steals and a 12.8 scoring average.

THE CAPTAINS:
Senior guard Terry Kelly averaged 11.1 points per game and collected 43 steals, 56 assists and 66 rebounds, while senior postman John Preston averaged 5.8 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.


Cougfan Top Stories