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Upcoming opponents rekindle memories of Lamar’s glory days

MEN’S BASKETBALL: HOWARD PAYNE AT LAMAR

• When: 7 tonight

• Where: Montagne Center, Beaumont

• Radio: KLVI-AM 560

• Series record: Lamar leads 8-6; last meeting, Lamar won 97-74 on Dec. 29, 2015

• About the game: Lamar is expected to begin the season starting four newcomers to the team in guards Torey Noel and Joey Frenchwood, Central graduate and swingman Tyrin Atwood and forward Colton Weisbrod (Nederland and Lamar State College Port Arthur). Sophomore forward Josh Nzeakor, who saw extensive action on a young team last season and averaged 6.3 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, is the other probable starter. That means sophomore guard Nick Garth, the Cardinals’ leading scorer last season (13.4 ppg), is coming off the bench, as he did in 23 of 29 games. … Howard Payne is a Division III program from Brownwood, 77 miles southeast of Abilene, that went 10-15 last season and 5-9 in the American Southwest Conference. — I.C. Murrell

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL: LAMAR AT OREGON STATE

• When: 4 p.m. today

• Where: Gill Coliseum, Corvallis, Ore.

• Webcast/Radio: OSUbeavers.com/None

• AP ranking: Oregon State No. 25

• Series record: First meeting

• About the game: Lamar, which finished 12-19 and 7-11 in the Southland Conference last season, is beginning the season with a two-game swing in the Beaver State. The first opponent, Oregon State, went 32-5 and marched all the way to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Connecticut. Senior guard Sidney Wiese is OSU’s returning leading scorer (12.8 ppg). … Sophomore guard Chastadie Barrs is back leading Lamar’s charge after finishing second in the nation in steals with 123 (3.97 per game) and becoming the first male or female freshman to win the Southland Defensive Player of the Year award. — I.C. Murrell

Many of you old enough to follow Lamar basketball during the Billy Tubbs era probably couldn’t help but flash back to 1980 when the Cardinals’ 2016-17 schedule was announced.

Two upcoming foes on that slate — Oregon State on Nov. 16 and DePaul on Dec. 6 — trigger glorious memories of program milestones.

DePaul and Oregon State, you see, were the opponents when LU scaled heights that seem even more preposterous today than they did 36 years ago. The 1979-80 Cardinals, a year after winning their first NCAA tournament game, sent shockwaves through college basketball with a near miss and a monumental upset.

The near miss came against DePaul on Jan. 15. A day after the high-flying Blue Demons had been voted No. 1 in all the polls, Lamar slipped into Chicago and scared the devil right out of them. DePaul needed a basket with three seconds left to hold off LU, 61-59.

A week later, the AP poll showed DePaul at No. 1 and Oregon State as No. 2. That’s pertinent because in March, Lamar authored the upset of the 1980 NCAA tourney — knocking off the Beavers, 81-77, in the second round.

Oregon State, the Pac 10 champ, had slipped to No. 5 in the polls, but it was the No. 2 seed behind DePaul in the West Regional. Lamar earned its shot at the Beavers by taking out No. 17 Weber State on its home floor in Ogden, Utah, in the opening round.

Think about the magnitude of what you just read for a second. Little old Lamar went toe to toe with two of the giants of the college game, defeated one of them to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 and lost to the other on its home court at the buzzer.

It just doesn’t seem real, does it? However, as history confirms, it wasn’t that much of an aberration for LU in those days. Under Tubbs, then his predecessor Pat Foster, Lamar was the mid-major predecessor to Gonzaga as an NCAA giant slayer.

Before more closely examining the DePaul and Oregon State mind-blowers, let’s briefly review some of the LU high points of the late 1970s and early to mid-’80s.

The first shot was fired in the 1979 NCAA tourney when LU took out No. 17 Detroit in the first round. In 1981, Foster’s Cardinals upended Big Eight champ Missouri in round one. The next season they routed SEC winner Alabama by 23 points in their NCAA opener, before falling 60-58 to Villanova.

While all this was happening, Lamar was in the midst of an 80-game home floor winning streak that was and still is the eighth longest in college basketball history. The Cardinals’ reputation was such that few power schools would consider playing in Beaumont.

One who did was Villanova. The Wildcats, after shocking Georgetown to win the NCAA championship in 1985, agreed to play at the Montagne Center early the following season. Rollie Massimino and his Wildcats went back to Philadelphia licking the wounds of a 78-59 thrashing.

LU had tuned up for Villanova by opening against Duke at The Summit in Houston in the NIT’s pre-season tournament. Duke, which would spend most of that season ranked No. 1, and lose to Louisville in the NCAA championship game, held off Lamar 66-62, leaving Mike Krzyzewski gushing about the Cardinals.

There were, to be sure, many more highlights and one stinging lowlight. The year after Lamar routed Alabama in the NCAAs, the Cardinals went 25-4, had a 19 RPI and got snubbed by the tournament committee. A 68-65 loss to Karl Malone and Louisiana Tech in the Southland Conference tournament finals sabotaged their tourney hopes.

Despite Lamar’s track record, and two of its losses being by one point at Wichita State and Utah State, the NCAA wasn’t about to take two teams from the SLC. It was classic NCAA, as far as never giving the little guy a break, and prompted Cardinal coach Pat Foster to call the tournament committee “white collar criminals.”

Five years earlier, meanwhile, the Cardinals came to Chicago with a team just starting to jell.

Center B.B. Davis, one of LU’s all-time greats, had broken his wrist the day before pre-season practice started, missed the first three games and didn’t begin to round into form until January. Junior college transfer Alvin Brooks, after struggling early, was finally starting to understand what Tubbs wanted at point guard.

Lamar arrived for the DePaul game with a 10-7 record that included losses at Texas Tech, Missouri and Arizona. Things had started coming together the Saturday night before DePaul, in a 141-84 rout at Portland State that saw LU’s all-time scoring leader Mike Olliver erupt for a school-record 50 points.

The Cardinals flew to Chicago on Sunday and walked into a literal circus on Monday when they went to DePaul’s Alumni Hall to practice. With the 12-0 Blue Demons having been announced as No. 1, local and national media swarmed future Hall of Fame coach Ray Meyer, star Mark Aguirre and a team that would be atop the polls for the rest of the year.

Twenty-four hours later, you could have heard the proverbial pin drop, as Lamar battled back from a nine-point deficit to tie the game at 59 with 37 seconds remaining. Even with Olliver having one of the worst shooting nights of his career, Lamar had hung around with Davis and 6-6, 260-pound Clarence Kea dominating inside.

DePaul played for the last shot and guard Skip Dillard nailed it from 16 feet. Aguirre, who would be the No. 1 pick in the 1981 NBA draft, and his talented teammates had dodged a bullet.

“I guess nobody was listening when I said Lamar had lost so many games because B.B. Davis was hurt early in the year,” said a relieved Meyer. “With him playing like he did tonight (22 points, 12 rebounds) they are capable of giving anybody problems.”

Oregon State and its future Hall of Fame coach Ralph Miller learned the truth of that statement two months later. OSU, led by 6-10 senior Steve Johnson, the seventh pick in the 1981 NBA draft, fell behind 32-16 in the first 10 minutes, pulled within 42-35 at the half, then took its first lead at 46-45.

Just when it seemed like LU was toast, it began to shred Oregon State’s press and retook the lead for good at 52-50. Brook proved to be the difference maker with a 15-point, eight-assist performance capped by clutch free throws down the stretch. All five starters, led by 18 each from Olliver and Davis, were in double figures.

Oregon State was so stunned a couple of its guys referred to Lamar as “just a bunch of street players.” Miller, though, was gracious, calling the Cardinals an “excellent team” and saying he learned a long time ago the letters across the front of a uniform don’t make much difference.

The following week in Tucson, it all came to a depressing end. Lamar, leading Clemson by eight inside the 10-minute mark, and looking at a date with UCLA to go to the Final Four, went cold.

Tubbs’ NCAA fan favorites came up short, 74-66, but the statements made at DePaul and against Oregon State still resonates with those who vividly remember what an amazing time it was.