How big was Pepperdine's victory over 20th-ranked DePaul in a season-opener last week? Maybe the biggest in Jim Harrick's nine seasons as head basketball coach of the Waves.
"It was probably the best season-opening win," Harrick said, "and the best road win we've probably every had."
Last Saturday the Waves defeated the Blue Demons in overtime, 84-76, and had to come from behind to do it at the Rosemont Horizon outside Chicago.
That may not seem extraordinary on the surface. But the Horizon is no ordinary place in which to play.
At DePaul's home arena, which seats more than 17,000, the crowds are always large--and always noisy.
When a DePaul player shoots a free throw, spectators are respectfully silent. When an opposing player goes to the foul line the crowd roars, and fans sitting behind the basket wave their arms and scream to disrupt the shooter's concentration.
When DePaul calls a timeout and its coaches give players instructions, the Blue Demon pep band is respectfully silent. When an opposing team calls time, the band plays on--and on and on.
When a Blue Demon makes a three-point shot or goes to the line to try to complete a three-point play, the public address announcer tries to give the impression that the achievement is on a par with the Second Coming. When an opposing player does the same, the announcer does his thing sotto voce.
You get the idea. It's hard to beat DePaul at home, even when its team is not one of the nation's best.
So hard that the Blue Demons have a 107-9 record in 10 seasons at the Horizon. So hard to beat them in season-openers that in 66 years of playing basketball, DePaul has a 60-6 record in opening games, whether at home or on the road.
And hard for Pepperdine, now 1-5 in its series with the Blue Demons, to beat them whether DePaul is in the top or bottom 20. And its basketball teams are almost always near the top.
That's why Harrick is on the mark when he says last week's victory at the Horizon was a landmark for the Pepperdine program.
"They've beaten a lot of teams in that building. Even when they don't have very good teams, you don't go in there and beat them.
"The things I liked about the game were that we played with patience and poise. We played with persistence when we were behind and never gave up. Our players showed great character with all the noise and before 11,000 people. And the band was right by our bench and playing every minute of every timeout."
Harrick said it took big heart for his team to compete so well against DePaul, particularly since he was starting three sophomores, all redshirts, in forward Tom Lewis, center Dexter Howard and guard Craig Davis and a redshirt junior, Marty Wilson. Wilson missed all of last season because of a back injury and hadn't seen much playing time in his sophomore or freshman years.
Lewis scored a game-high 26 points, including three baskets from three-point range. When he tried to drive to the basket and found the way blocked by Blue Demons, he did a good job of drawing fouls (he was 13 of 18 from the line) or passing off to the open man for a shot.
Davis was 1 for 5 from the field in the first half, 0 for 1 from three-point range. But in the second half, Davis was 6 for 14 from the floor, 4 for 8 on three-pointers, and he finished with 23 points.
Howard didn't score much (8 points), but he grabbed 9 rebounds, right behind a team-high 10 rebounds by senior forward Levy Middlebrooks. (Pepperdine had the rebounding advantage, 56-48.) Wilson scored only 4 points, but he handed out a team-high 7 assists.
Harrick said he was also proud of his team because "they didn't play very well, but they played well enough to win."
He pointed out that the Waves made only six of 12 free-throw attempts in the first half and "we are a very good foul shooting team." Pepperdine came back in the second half to shoot 84.6% (22 of 26) from the line in the second half.
He said that the increase in accuracy--as well as the second-half shooting comeback by Davis--proved the relevance of one of his favorite maxims: "Miss 'em early. Make 'em late."
The Blue Demons may have missed the play-making of junior point guard Rod Strickland, who is academically ineligible. But as DePaul Coach Joey Meyer said: "We have to go out and play with the hand that's dealt us."
Meyer added that Pepperdine also was "more physical than we were."
Harrick said that he did not want to mention Strickland any more. In the post-game press conference, he had said, "I know how good Rod Strickland is, but that (his absence) takes nothing away from this win. This is an extremely difficult place to play."
DePaul senior guard Andy Laux may have put Strickland's absence in the best perspective: "We knew what the job was, but we just didn't get it done. The game was there for us, but we just didn't take it. We just didn't execute."