By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
MORGANTOWN, W.VA. (Feb. 27, 1983) -- Following West Virginia's 87-78 victory over No. 1-ranked UNLV at the WVU Coliseum on Feb. 27, 1983, Morgantown Dominion Post sports editor Mickey Furfari asked the question how big is big?
To finally answer his 18-year-old query, that 1983 contest is still considered by Mountaineer fans the greatest basketball game in the 31-year history of the WVU Coliseum.
MSNsportsNET.com recently provided West Virginia fans with the opportunity to select the greatest game in Coliseum history, and the UNLV contest was the overwhelming choice of Mountaineer fans everywhere.
The UNLV victory outdistanced a host of other memorable encounters including:
West Virginia's 81-68 upset of Digger Phelps-led Notre Dame on Feb. 19, 1977
Playing host to a team of UNLV's pedigree was exactly what West Virginia University athletic director Red Brown had in mind when he convinced the state legislature to spend 10.4 million to build the WVU Coliseum in 1967.
Basketball fans were teased with the idea of a massive basketball venue for years before the Board of Governors finally gave the go-ahead on Sept. 23, 1967.
Three years later Brown had his building.
Sixteen years later, the nation's No. 1-ranked college basketball team finally made its way to the Coliseum hardwood when Jerry Tarkanian brought his Runnin' Rebels to Morgantown for a game on Sunday, Feb. 27, 1983.
In Tarkanian, West Virginia basketball observers couldn't have asked for a better character to provide the setting for an exciting college basketball game.
Tarkanian was the son of Armenian refugees who survived the genocide that killed more than two million over a 24-year period. He was born in the United States in 1930 and eventually won a scholarship to Fresno State University.
When he completed his eligibility, he began coaching at a nearby high school.
By 1961, Tarkanian was coaching at Riverside Junior College and five years later, took over at Pasadena College. In 1968, 'Tark" became the head coach at Long Beach College and built a powerhouse by recruiting junior college players.
Tarkanian once bragged that when he took his first Long Beach team to the NCAA tournament in 1970, his entire starting lineup consisted of junior college players. Tarkanian also ignored the unwritten rule of the time that three of the five starting players must be white.
By the time he arrived at Nevada-Las Vegas in 1973 following a 122-20 record at Long Beach, Tarkanian's renegade reputation was fully hatched.
In ensuing years, he did little to dispel that tag. His first UNLV team posted a 20-6 record and four years later in 1977, he had the Rebels in the Final Four against North Carolina.
His critics said he did so by recruiting players who had no business being in college.
Irwin Molasky, a wealthy businessman noted for supporting UNLV, once summed up the appreciation Rebel supporters had for Tarkanian.
"For us to become the Harvard of the West would take 50 to 100 years, but in a limited amount of time he got us a lot of recognition."
To basketball supporters in the Battle Born State, Tarkanian appeared to walk on water. However, NCAA investigators noticed the stones beneath the surface and embarked upon a bitter battle with Tarkanian that lasted three decades and wound up costing them a $2.5 million settlement in 1998.
Tarkanian claimed their feud started in 1970 following a newspaper column noting his criticism of the NCAA for its treatment of Western Kentucky while nearby Kentucky wasn't even investigated.
"The NCAA doesn't want to take on the big boys," Tarkanian stated.
By 1976, Tarkanian was one of those "big boys."
Among the 10 major infractions the NCAA alleged was a charge that Tarkanian had arranged for player David Vaughan to receive a "B" in a class he never attended.
There were also allegations of free clothing and free airline travel on casino-owned charters.
The charges never stuck.
By 1983, Tarkanian had pieced together a team made up of New York City player of the year Sidney Green, forward Eldridge Hudson of Carson, Calif., and a pair of west coast transfers in San Francisco guard Eric Booker and Arizona swingman Jeff Collins.
Assistant Tim Grgurich, who spent five years as the head coach at Pitt from 1975-80, brought center Paul Brozovich with him to Vegas and also helped land Pittsburgh player of the year Larry Anderson.
Tarkanian's son, Danny, quarterbacked the club. However, 6-9 Green and 6-6 Anderson were UNLV's cornerstone players. Green was the Big West player of the year in 1983 after averaging 22.1 points and 11.9 rebounds per game. He was the fifth player taken in the NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls and wound up spending 10 seasons in the NBA with the Bulls, Knicks, Magic, Spurs, Pistons and Hornets.
Today Green can be found working the sidelines as the head basketball coach at Florida Atlantic.
Anderson averaged 16.8 points per game and earned second team all-conference honors before being drafted in the third round by the Cleveland Cavaliers. A total of six UNLV players were drafted off the '83 team.
"They had a high-octane offense," remembered West Virginia forward Lester Rowe.
Vegas began the season with a 65-54 victory over Oklahoma and also had wins over Arizona and Tennessee before being tripped up at Cal-Fullerton, 86-78 three days before facing West Virginia.
The Rebels won 24 straight games before the loss to Fullerton, and were certain to fall from the top of the rankings regardless of their outcome against West Virginia.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, had undergone a major facelift under Coach Gale Catlett. The fiery coach had performed his first basketball resurrection at Cincinnati in 1972, and was doing the same at his alma mater.
The man WVU supporters called "The Cat" played at the end of the finest era of basketball West Virginians had ever witnessed during the early 1960s, and later refined his basketball knowledge under the likes of Ted Owens at Kansas and Adolph Rupp at Kentucky.
His system was firmly in place by 1981 when the Mountaineers marched through the NIT on the way to a 23-10 record -- the school's first post-season berth since 1968 and the first 20-win season since Catlett's senior season in 1963.
In 1982, Catlett led the Mountaineers to a 27-4 record, a spot in the NCAA tournament and a No. 14 final national ranking.
Four key players from that 1982 team returned for the '83 season, led by guard Greg Jones and forward Russel Todd.
The Mountaineers had a solid basketball team in '83, winning their first eight games before suffering a 76-69 loss at Stetson. But it didn't quite match the consistency of Catlett's '82 squad, which won a nation's-best 23 games.
A loss to N.C. State at the Meadowlands knocked West Virginia out of the national ratings, and a 64-63 downer to Jim O'Brien's St. Bonaventure team snapped WVU's 39-game home win streak.
By the time UNLV came to town in late February, West Virginia owned an 18-6 record.
When the Rebels made their cross-country flight to Morgantown, they were feeling the grind of playing a long season. In addition to the loss at Fullerton, UNLV had to play without 6-7 freshman forward Garland Hudson, who suffered cartilage damage to his knee in practice.
Danny Tarkanian, the nation's leader in assists, had a case of the flu and was not operating at full strength.
Though not to the degree of UNLV, West Virginia had health problems of its own, too.
Jones lost his front tooth in the Virginia Tech win earlier that month -- the victim of a collision with freshman guard Renardo Brown.
"Renardo got in the wrong press and I ran into him following a basket," Jones said.
The guard's tooth wound up in Brown's head. While the freshman forward winced in pain on the floor, Jones, possessing a hot hand that night, grew impatient as the team's medical staff attended to Brown.
When trainer Jack Brautigam finally got to Jones, the guard simply reached for a cup of water to wash out his mouth, flashed his crooked smile, and asked, "can I get a gold cap now?"
Jones finished the triple-overtime thriller with 38 points in 54 minutes of action as the Mountaineers won the game, 90-86.
It was a classic Greg Jones performance.
Prior to the UNLV game, the Mountaineers were coming off a 99-76 win against George Washington at the Coliseum. West Virginia had four days of rest to prepare for the ambush.
Unfortunately, Fullerton took care of that.
"I spent the entire night calling the press row phone at Fullerton," recalled former WVU sports information director Joe Boczek. "The results kept getting worse."
Even though West Virginia didn't have the pleasure of knocking UNLV from the ranks of the unbeaten, it was still a great opportunity to gain national recognition in front of a CBS television audience.
"We knew from the moment we stepped on the floor that we were going to win the game," remembered Rowe.
West Virginia students camped outside the Coliseum for two days in an effort to get courtside seats. When the game finally tipped off at 1 p.m., the Coliseum had 15,638 fans packed tightly inside.
West Virginia's most pressing concern at the game's outset was how to handle 6-9 Green.
Six-five sophomore Rowe was assigned to Anderson, 6-4 freshman Dale Blaney covered Collins, 6-10 center Tim Kearney took Brozovich and Jones was a mismatch for Tarkanian.
That left 6-7 Todd to guard Green. It was the game's key matchup.
"Russel held his own," remembered Blaney.
The quiet Northfork, W.Va., native countered Green's 24-point, 16-rebound afternoon with a 14-point, four-rebound effort of his own. Todd's 10-point difference was far less than the 32-point advantage West Virginia had at point guard.
The UNLV game was perhaps the signature game of Jones' career at West Virginia University. He dazzled the crowd with five three-point baskets and shot his way to a game-high 32 points.
Jones nailed 12-of-21 shots that day and also hit three-of-three from the foul line. Tarkanian, meanwhile, finished his day scoreless with just one assist.
"There's nobody better than Greg Jones anywhere in the country," beamed Catlett after the game.
"Jones shot the hell out of it," added Tarkanian. "I didn't think he was that good of a shooter."
West Virginia also got a tremendous performance from maligned center Tim Kearney, who looked for shots about as often as Ronald Reagan made important decisions. On this day, Kearney did it from the free throw line, canning nine-of-14 foul shots on the way to a 15-point effort. Kearney also collected 10 rebounds, handed out five assists and blocked three shots.
Blaney contributed 11 points.
Following a nine-point West Virginia halftime lead, UNLV scored the first seven points of the second half to trim WVU's lead to two. Two times at 41-40 with 14:56 to go and 49-48 with 10:43 left, the Rebels trailed by a single point.
Each time UNLV would make a run to close the margin, Jones would deliver a key basket to keep the Rebels at bay.
With the score 59-55, Jones triggered an 11-5 spurt that widened the gap to 70-60 with 3:51 left.
Jones's driving layup at 2:20 brought the first 15-point bulge at 78-63, and it was duplicated at 80-65 and 82-67 before the Rebels closed the final margin to nine.
As the final seconds ran off the clock, WVU students and fans raced to the floor to embrace the team. Nets were cut down and fans milled around the arena listening to Catlett's post-game radio remarks.
The coach had registered his 100th career victory at WVU.
"What a way for Coach Catlett to get his 100th victory," remarked assistant coach Gary McPherson.
In addition to Green's 24, Anderson finished the game with 15 points, followed by 11 each from Brozovich and Booker.
West Virginia went on to win the Atlantic 10 tournament championship before succumbing to James Madison, 57-50 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers completed the 1983 season with a 23-8 record.
UNLV, meanwhile, won its final regular season game against San Jose State before capturing the Big West Conference tournament. National champion North Carolina State upset the Rebels in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 71-70 to give UNLV a final record of 28-3.