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Tournament Bid Stirs Air of Excitement on Campus : NIT Fever Infects Loyola Marymount

March 13, 1986|MICHELE L. NORRIS | Times Staff Writer

WESTCHESTER — trophy case at Loyola Marymount University is almost empty, but this week the school's students, staff and faculty are full of hope.

For the first time in the school's 59-year history, the Loyola Marymount basketball team is playing in the National Invitation Tournament beginning tonight in Berkeley with a contest against the University of California.

The Loyola cagers, with new Coach Paul Westhead, senior stars Keith Smith and Forest Walton-McKenzie and some talented newcomers, ended with an 18-10 record for a season that was highlighted by a 10-game winning streak early in the year.

Participation in the tournament could have far-reaching effects for the small Catholic university, faculty and administrators said.

"A winning season like this fosters pride, brings students together and gives the university all kinds of recognition that may help us recruit new students in the future," said Lane Bove, director of the university's Learning Resource Center and longtime Loyola basketball fan.

Successful sports teams can often provide widespread publicity for small colleges that might otherwise get little recognition, Bove said. "What would Notre Dame be without football?"

"Someone who is considering our school might say, 'Hey, Loyola Marymount has a good basketball team. They must have a good academic program, too," she said, noting that applications for admission to Boston College nearly tripled while quarterback Doug Flutie was leading the school's football team.

Even if Loyola Marymount were to receive more applications for admission, the university plans to remain small to maintain its roughly 15-1 student-faculty ratio, spokesman Mary Mehoke said. Fall enrollment stood at 5,119 students at at the Westchester campus, which is run by Jesuit priests and nuns of the Sacred Heart of Mary order.

But enrollment and recruiting were not on the minds of Loyola basketball fans this week. The invitation to the prestigious tournament takes Loyola out of the shadow of local athletic giants like UCLA and USC. Students point with pride to the fact that their cagers had a better record than the 15-13 UCLA team, which also received a bid to the NIT.

"We've always been sort of upstaged by bigger and stronger campuses," said Student Body President Michael Devitt. "All of a sudden we're kind of in the limelight and people here are starting to get excited about it. In the past, people only went to basketball games if there was nothing else to do on a Friday or Saturday night. Now the games are packed."

Freshman Francie Calfo is one of those who fills the stands. "The spirit here is great," she said. "I love to go to the games and get rowdy and yell and cheer and stuff."

Even staff and faculty members who in 1982 objected to the construction of the Gersten Pavilion, where the basketball team plays, are showing up at the games wearing the scarlet, blue and gray garb of Loyola Marymount, said Athletic Director Brian Quinn.

"All of a sudden everyone is interested in basketball," Quinn said.

"The intramural recreation gym is just mobbed with students playing basketball, and record-breaking crowds are turning out for the (varsity) games," he said.

The campus bookstore has also felt the symptoms of basketball fever, selling nearly twice as many Loyola Marymount T-shirts, pennants, mugs and other school paraphernalia as in past years, said bookstore manager Kent Taylor.

"When the team was on that 10-game winning streak we had people coming in here asking for stuff we didn't even have, like Loyola Marymount basketball shirts," Taylor said.

John McKeon, a longtime fan and self-described "basketball junkie," reminds the "Johnny-come-latelys" who now support the team that, win or lose tonight at Berkeley, "we have a great team" that should continue to draw crowds next season.

"I hope they win the game against Cal, but even if they lose I know the students and professors will never forget this season. I think we all agree that the team deserves a standing O."

The Loyola-Cal meeting will be a reunion of former South Bay high school stars. Page 8.

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