If the Bruins had known the NIT was like this, they'd have have signed up years ago. The NIT served up another semi-contender on a plate, Nebraska's Cornhuskers, and UCLA ran a clinic on these guys, too.
Tuesday night, Reggie Miller scored a career-high 29 points, Montel Hatcher a career-high 18, Brad Wright took a career-high 15 rebounds and the Bruins won, 82-63. Without having left Pauley Pavilion, or having anyone get within 19 points of them, the Bruins are one win away from Madison Square Garden and the NIT semifinals.
They'll play Saturday, against the NIT's traditional opponent to be named later. The early guess is that it will be Fresno State, which beat New Mexico Thursday night.
For the Bruins (18-12), this was the fifth straight victory. In December, they had their string of games on the road against DePaul, Memphis State and St. John's, which Coach Walt Hazzard always refers to as the "December Death March."
Welcome to the March Payback March. This time it is the Bruins, who have been allowed to stay home for both games of this tournament, matched against a couple of mastodons from the midlands, neither of which quite matched up. First came Big Slow Montana from the Big Sky Conference, whom the Bruins nailed, 78-47.
Then came the Big Red, who weren't exactly gazelles, themselves.
The Cornhuskers couldn't handle the Bruin press, or guard the Bruin back-doors. Reggie Miller burned the same Nebraska forward, Curtis Moore, for four back-doors.
"Miller absolutely killed us," Nebraska Coach Moe Iba said. "He took Curtis completely out of the game. When Curtis has to guard a man like that, his mind just goes completely haywire."
Nebraska couldn't do much but throw the ball inside to 6-11 center Dave Hoppen. Early in the game, the Bruins forced turnovers on three straight possessions, including two steals by Miller, and grabbed a 12-6 lead.
Then Hatcher got hot. Hatcher is a third-year sophomore, a bust in his first varsity season and a slow starter in this one. He is said to go a half-hour at a time in practices without missing and he played like that Tuesday, hitting eight of his first nine shots. He had his career-high 18 points by the time the second half was 3:43 old.
"In that first half," Hatcher said, "every time the ball left my hand, I would say, that's in."
When he cooled down, Miller didn't. Miller has a high school high of 48 points, though, so he wasn't much impressed with a mere 29.
"I think we're playing the best we're capble of playing," Miller said. "I think the NCAA should have looked at the way we played late in the season. We're trying to show them they made a mistake.
"We're just playing like we're capable of playing. There's really no pressure. The coaches aren't putting any pressure on us. We just go out and play hard. I don't think anybody is going to out-hustle us here. This is our home court. We're trying to get back to the old tradition, anyone coming in here, we're going to make them pay for it."
Iba: "I would have thought it would have been something to play here for our players, but I didn't think they gave a good effort. Effort-wise, I was really displeased with what we did."
Effort-wise and everything else-wise, Hazzard was delighted. "I drew an apple on the blackboard before the game," he said. "I said, 'Take me to the Big Apple. They said, 'We will, Coach.' "
Bruin Notes The attendance was 7,228, impressive only when compared to the 4,820 the Bruins drew for the NIT opener. They averaged more than 9,000 for home games against Pacific 10 opponents.