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The NCAA Tournament is filled with all sorts of true stories that could easily pass for film scripts. Many of them were near and dear to our hearts.
Few of them struck college basketball fans harder than the death of Hank Gathers and the subsequent, highly unlikely Elite Eight Run by the Loyola Marymount Lions in 1990.
Gathers and best friend Bo Kimble transferred from the University of Southern California after their freshman year and were spearheading the attack for the most up-tempo offense in the history of Division I basketball for head coach Paul Westhead. His unorthodox “Shoot in 10 seconds or less” offense was allowing Gathers and Kimble to catch serious wreck together in their three years on campus.
In 1990, Hank Gathers was second in the nation in scoring at 29 points per game. Teammate Bo Kimble averaged 35. Hank led the nation in scoring and rebounds per game the year before, with 32 and 13 respectively. Designated shooter Jeff Fryer was the team’s third-leading scorer, averaging 22 points per game.
That season, Loyola Marymount averaged 122.4 points per game, a record that might never be broken. Their defensive strategy was to apply a full-court press throughout much of the game to force turnovers and speed their opponents up, thus ensuring a frenetic pace on both ends.
Hank was the team’s single dominant inside player. He was 6-foot-7 and playing center but was a ferocious offensive rebounder and powerful dunker. Despite being considered small for his position, he was compared by some to a young Charles Barkley and projected to go in the 1990 NBA Draft Lottery.
On December 9, 1989, he collapsed at a home game against UC Santa Barbara and was diagnosed with exercise-induced ventricular tachycardia. He was prescribed the beta-blocker, Inderal and reportedly felt that the medicine affected his play. The dosage was reduced over time. Hank missed a total of three games after that initial diagnosis.
Weeks later Gathers would record the most memorable game of his career against LSU, scoring 48 points and grabbing 13 rebounds against Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts and the LSU Tigers in a 148-141 overtime loss. He would follow that up with a 30-rebound outing against West Coast Conference rival St. Mary’s.
On March 4, 1990, Gathers collapsed after throwing down an alley-oop from point guard Terrell Lowery. He was pronounced dead shortly thereafter at 6:55 PM.
Though crushed emotionally, the Lions went on one of the most memorable non-title runs in NCAA Tournament history. Gathers was not a good free throw shooter. So, to increase rotation he began shooting it with his left hand. Bo Kimble would pay homage to his fallen friend by shooting his first free throw of every Tournament game that year lefty, and he would continue that throughout his professional playing days.
The No. 11 seed Lions would march all the way to the Elite Eight, taking the collective pride of No. 6 seed New Mexico State, No. 7 seed Alabama, and No. 3 seed Michigan. I’ll never forget the look on Rumeal Robinson’s face as the Lions gashed the 199 defending NCAA Tournament National Champion Wolverines over and over again. The final score: 149-115.
Loyola Marymount would eventually succumb to the athleticism and explosiveness of the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, the eventual NCAA Champions that year, by a score of 131-101.
There was so much scoring in that 1990 NCAA Tournament and so much personality, too. You had the LSU Tigers with Chris Jackson, Shaq and Stanley Roberts, you had Georgia Tech with Kenny Anderson, Dennis Scott and Brian Oliver, and you had defensive juggernauts like John Thompson’s Georgetown Hoyas with Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutumbo and streak-shooting G Mark Tillmon.
Barring the Runnin’ Rebels, no 1990 NCAA Tournament team was worth the price of admission quite like the Loyola Marymount Lions. I can still hear the announcer now; “Jeff Fryer for three!”