Advertisement

COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT

History Remains No Friend to Fullerton's Foes

Basketball: Titans' surprise run in 1978 still has some players scratching their heads.

March 11, 1998|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To this day, Michael Cooper still gets asked the question. But people don't want to know, How could you lose to Cal State Fullerton? Instead, they wonder, How much did you guys get paid?

No one, it seems, can still believe the Titans could beat fourth-ranked New Mexico in the 1978 NCAA men's basketball tournament. Or upset 11th-ranked San Francisco in the next game. Or nearly reach hog heaven by playing fifth-ranked Arkansas to the last shot in the West Regional final.

So Cooper falls under suspicion.

"Someone the other day asked me whether it was point shaving," Cooper said. "We were so heavily favored. I have to sit them down and tell a lot of people that there was nothing illegal. Please tell people that Fullerton just beat us."

And San Francisco and nearly Arkansas.

It was 20 years ago that Fullerton's Keith Anderson took that nine-second journey, dribbling upcourt toward a game-winning shot and a spot in the Final Four, only to have the ball stripped away by some Razorback--none of whom, to this day, takes credit. It ended a tournament run like never before, since, or likely ever again.

Myths grow with time, and this one deserves the expansion. Just look at the accomplishments of some of the players the Titans beat--or almost beat:

* Cooper: Five NBA titles in a 12-year career.

* San Francisco's Bill Cartwright: Three NBA titles in a 16-year career.

* Arkansas' Sidney Moncrief: A 10-year NBA career during which he made the all-defensive team four times.

The days since television commentator Al McGuire irritated Titan fans by uttering, "Cal State Who?" have been good to those three. The day they faced the Titans, they were bit players, straight men to a miracle run.

That's what people remember. Most of them anyway.

"Fullerton?" McGuire said. "All I can remember is their nickname. They were the Anteaters, right?"

Twenty years later and McGuire still can't get it right.

FULLERTON 90, NEW MEXICO 85

Cooper remembers.

It wasn't so much a game New Mexico lost, he said, as it was the national championship. The regional was played in Albuquerque, in the Lobos' arena, known not-so-lovingly as The Pit.

All New Mexico had to do was brush aside a first-round opponent in Tempe, Ariz.

"We had two glorious games ahead of us in The Pit," said Cooper, who now works as a television commentator. "Our fans wouldn't have let anyone else in that place. Maybe we got caught up in all that. It made me a better person and player. I never underestimated anyone again."

Cooper made the NBA's all-defensive team eight times, and was known as the one man who could slow down Larry Bird. Yet, on that day in Tempe, he was sitting in a zone defense.

Kevin Heenan, Fullerton's 6-foot-4, 150-pound goggle-wearing forward sank one jump shot after another.

"He looked like a bug, but he shot like Larry Bird," Cooper said. "Every time I turned around, Heenan was shooting a wide-open jumper. We never played zone, but Coach [Norm] Ellenberger was concerned about Fullerton's big man. I probably would have been switched on to Heenan, but we couldn't stop their big man on the boards."

Fullerton's "big man" was 6-5 Greg Bunch. He made eight of 10 shots. Fullerton trailed by 10 in the first half, then rallied.

"We had brought a lot of fans to that game," Cooper said. "We called it 'The Pit Stop.' The atmosphere was really lively when the game started. In the second half, it was like someone had passed away."

What had died was the Lobos' shot at the Final Four.

"I flew to L.A. the next day," Cooper said. "I couldn't go to The Pit for the regional. We were supposed to blow them out. But on that day, they were the better team.

"I wish we could play them again. I wish we could keep playing them until we are in our 70s and 80s. We would beat them every time but that one time."

FULLERTON 75, SAN FRANCISCO 72

Cartwright prefers not to remember.

He groaned at the mention of "Fullerton." So what does he recall?

"Besides the fact we should have won?" said Cartwright, now an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls.

Cartwright had 19 points in the first half and the Dons, who led by as many as 15, were up, 44-32, at halftime. He had only eight points in the second half.

"We were playing really well and then we stopped attacking them inside," Cartwright said. "We started shooting jump shots and stopped pounding them. They got the momentum and then we made a bonehead play."

Anderson hit a jump shot with three seconds left to give the Titans a 74-72 lead. The Dons called a timeout, which they didn't have, and received a technical.

"It was Michigan before Michigan," Cartwright said, referring to Chris Weber's timeout in the 1993 NCAA title game. "It wasn't pretty.

"We were a volatile team. When you're young, you're not sure how to handle that type of situation. Looking back, I wish we had another shot at doing it the right way. Fullerton was more focused that day."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|