NEW ORLEANS — Oooh, Freddie. A free throw? How mortal. How sadly mortal. Time running out, Nevada-Las Vegas is losing, about to be sent down the NCAA mountain, and suddenly, the guy switches on, what he throws up is going in — and we’re talking rainbows from space here –so the crowd goes nuts, like a thousand hot crap tables, and look out, UNLV is coming back at Indiana, straight for the jugular.

Bomb from the corner! 90-83. Bomb from the corner! 92-88. “I couldn’t cover Freddie Banks any better,” Indiana’s Steve Eyl would say. “I had my hands in his face, my body in his face. He put it in my face.”

But then, with 28 seconds left, the magic departed, like the sudden chill of hot dice. And “Fearless” Freddie — who, at that point, already had 10 three-pointers — missed one from the corner, then missed another, and on the rebound he got fouled. And there, left all alone at the free-throw line, he expired. The score was still 92-88, but there was no money left in this Banks. His shot clanked away, the front end of a one-and-one, Indiana rebounded, and that would really do it. “I was so tired,” the senior guard would say, “I couldn’t even get the ball over the rim.”

Crapped out. Down goes No. 1. Jerry Tarkanian’s group will not finish what it started — being the nation’s top team at the start of this tournament. Bobby Knight and Steve Alford and the rest of the squeaky-clean Hoosiers made sure of that Saturday, 97-93.

And while the focus in the finale Monday will be who’s tops, Indiana or Syracuse (Saturday’s other winner), the big question this morning is, What happened to the Runnin’ Rebels we all knew and envied?

“That wasn’t us out there,” said UNLV center Armon (The Hammer) Gilliam.
“That’s not the way we play basketball.”

The press never was complete Well. Maybe. Whoever was wearing the UNLV uniforms certainly lacked the full-court defensive pressure typical of the team all season. “Every time- out I emphasized that,” Tarkanian said afterward, shaking his head. “We had two guys, three guys pressing, but never all five at once.”

As a result, Indiana was able to move the ball into Alford, who played his part perfectly — roll off pick, head-fake, shoot — and he finished with 33 points. But what would that have mattered had the last minutes gone according to the Vegas script? This, after all, was a team that got here by coming back from 19 points down against Iowa. What’s four lousy points to Indiana? Especially the way this game had gone.

True, it was played before a ridiculous 64,959 Superdome fans — many of whom will recall it only as a distant rumbling — but hey. In the first half,

this was the same game you see if you park your car alongside certain concrete playgrounds in New York and Baltimore and D.C. Dribble and bang, dribble and bang, missed shots clanking off the backboard, passes flying as the passer looks the other way, every steal an insult, every basket an invitation to outdo it. Talking trash? Heck, at one point UNLV’s Mark Wade had words with Bobby Knight. Bobby Knight?

“It was nothing,” Wade mumbled afterward. “He just told me and Alford to concentrate on basketball.”

Not that Alford needed reminding. For in the crucial half, the second half, Indiana set the pace. Thanks to strong bench help by Eyl and Joe Hillman, the Hoosiers led by as many as 12. “That would enable us to withstand them later,” Knight said afterward. And he was right. Like fraternity brothers cramming for an exam, UNLV made its typical charge in the closing minutes. The Rebels just started from too far back.

“Usually when we come back on somebody, they crumble,” said Banks, who finished with 38 points. “These guys never crumbled. These guys were tough.”

Rebels’ lament is familiar So these guys advance. Indiana again. And UNLV had a sadly familiar look when its locker room was opened after the game
— like the tourist who loses the whole wad with one roll of Vegas dice.

“It’s over,” said Gilliam, looking at his shoes, and in a way, that’s too bad. Because this was a team that lived up to its nickname — The Runnin’ Rebels — and its brand of explosives was a pure pleasure to watch. The Superdome never rocked as much Saturday as when Freddie and the Dreamers tried to win the thing from a mile away.

But live by the three-pointer, die by the three-pointer. The other UNLV guards never clicked from the outside, and Indiana kept on scoring until Banks and Wade and Gilliam had nothing to look forward to but graduation.

Crapped out. Down goes No. 1. Oooh, Freddie, had that free throw gone. But then, nothing “free” can ever be counted on. The Vegas kids ought to know that by now.

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