The legend of Tod Murphy continues to grow, gaining new dimensions every time Nevada Las Vegas routs somebody else by 40 or 50 points.
For most of those who get the chance, beating Las Vegas on the basketball court is one of those once-in-a-lifetime achievements. Already, the 1987 Oklahoma Sooners have at least one tall tale to tell their grandchildren.
And then there's Murphy.
In his four-year career at UC Irvine, Murphy beat the Runnin' Rebels three times--twice in a month. As a sophomore in 1984, Murphy sank the decisive basket in a 77-74 Irvine victory in Crawford Hall. As a senior in 1986, he was the Anteaters' man in the middle during February upsets at Las Vegas (99-92) and Irvine (95-88).
Twenty-six days ago, he was also on the Anteater bench in Thomas and Mack Center. There, Murphy watched as the Rebels, atoning for such past transgressions, bludgeoned Irvine by 42 points, 114-72.
"It was hard to watch," Murphy said. "I wished I could have gone out there and done something to help."
But on this night, Murphy was helpless. His eligibility exhausted, Murphy attends Irvine games in street clothes as a volunteer assistant coach.
Murphy was not alone, however. For Irvine, for 40 minutes, helplessness was the team policy.
Scott Brooks, then the West's leading scorer and coming off a 30-point performance against Iowa, hit 5 of 13 shots for 14 points. His backcourt partner, Joe Buchanan, was 2 for 14, and No. 3 guard Mike Hess was 2 for 7. The Anteaters shot 23.8% in the second half and 30% for the game.
They also committed 26 turnovers and were outrebounded, 64-48. At the same time, Las Vegas shot 60% in the first half, 52% for the game and 59% from three-point territory.
When it was over, Irvine Coach Bill Mulligan thanked Jerry Tarkanian for "taking it easy on us" and keeping the point spread in the 40s. "It could have been 100," Mulligan said.
Incredibly, it was only the second-worst loss in Anteater basketball history.
Not so incredibly, No. 1 was also administered by Las Vegas--a 72-point loss in 1975, 129-57.
And guess who's coming to dinner tonight?
Nevada Las Vegas may no longer be No. 1 in the land--that distinction was stripped away in Oklahoma--but everything else remains intact. Irvine will meet all of it, head-on, at 7:30 p.m. in front of an expected sellout crowd of 5,000 in the Bren Center.
Las Vegas' up-to-date numbers: No. 3 in the nation, 19-1 overall, 8-0 in the Pacific Coast Athletic Assn., averaging 95.3 points a game, shooting 50.1% as a team, coming off a 106-58 victory over Fresno State Monday night.
Irvine (6-4, 11-8) braces for this encounter without point guard Buchanan (abdominal infection) and reserve forward Mark Warren (mononucleosis)--and with guard Kevin Floyd and forward Rob Doktorczyk making only their second starts at those positions.
What to do, what to do . . .
"I don't have the answer," Mulligan said. "The last Vegas game, I tried to outcoach Tark, putting in all these new things defensively. Every time I do it, it gets us in trouble.
"We'll go into this one doing what we do best--running and shooting. It's stupid to play differently for a team, no matter how good they are.
"But, I still don't know if we can make a game out of it."
What would it take? Some informed opinions:
--Brooks: "We have to play one of our best games of the year to even give them a good game. Last year, we beat them because they tried to run with us. I can't say that now. This year, they ran with us. Look what happened."
--Irvine center Wayne Engelstad: "We need to play our best game ever. Make five turnovers or less, shoot at least 50% for the game. It'll be uphill from the tipoff."
--Murphy: "It would take an amazing game, but, yeah, it's possible. Irvine will have to keep the intensity at a premium level all night long or it'll be another nightmare."
About Nightmare I: The Anteaters forward a few theories as to why the 42-point rout came about.
One is the Iowa Factor. Four days before taking on No. 1 Las Vegas, Irvine played No. 3 Iowa in the championship final of the Anteater Tournament. Irvine played its best game of the season and lost to Iowa by a basket, 105-103.
"We came into the Vegas game thinking, 'We just lost to the No. 3 team in the nation by two points,' " Irvine assistant coach Mike Bokosky said. "And we had beaten Vegas twice last year. We were complacent. We figured all we had to do was play our game."
Mulligan: "We were cocky. We came in with a very poor attitude. We didn't run our offense. Whoever got the ball, shot it. We took the same shots against Iowa--but against Iowa, we made all those shots."
Then there's the Talent Factor. Maybe Las Vegas simply is that much better than Irvine.
Certainly, the Anteaters have no one who can match up with the Rebels' 6-9 senior forward Armon (Hammer) Gilliam. Gilliam is averaging 23.2 points a game, 9 rebounds and is shooting 60% from the field.