Smizik: Eastern Eight tournament was special event

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Back in a time when the Petersen Events Center wasn't a figment of anyone's imagination, when Ben Howland was a graduate assistant at Gonzaga, when Jamie Dixon was playing high school ball and when no one on the current Pitt team was born, Pittsburgh had its own little slice of basketball heaven.

As much anticipation as there is for Pitt's annual March trip to New York City for the Big East tournament, there was more for the annual Eastern Eight tournament that played in Pittsburgh five years between 1978-82.

The Eastern Eight tournament didn't have the cachet the Big East has today at its Madison Square Garden site. It certainly didn't have the class of teams or the level of talent. But it had one quality the Big East tournament doesn't have.

It was ours.

For a few days, Pittsburgh, a town that tolerated college basketball but which had never come close to embracing it, was hoops heaven.

Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, the Eastern Eight tournament played its final game at the Civic Arena, and what a game it was. It bordered on the historic with the home team scoring a major upset against a nationally ranked and much-despised opponent and, at the same time, thumbing its nose at the rest of the league.

The first year the tournament came to Pittsburgh all eight games were at the Civic Arena. The final four years only the semifinals and finals were played in Pittsburgh with the first-round game at campus sites. Regardless of the format, it was a major event that took control of the first page of the sport sections, brought the TV cameras out in full numbers, had a radio talk-show going live and sold out the building.

The fact Pitt and Duquesne played in the league made Pittsburgh a natural site for the tournament. Although neither team drew particularly well nor was particularly outstanding, the rivalry was intense, far more so than it is today. For decades, Duquesne had been the No. 1 program in Pittsburgh. In the 1970s, Pitt caught up. The two teams were shortly to go in opposite directions -- Duquesne toward the bottom of college basketball and Pitt toward the top. But in the early 1980s, neither team controlled the series. The competition was fierce, and fights were the rule more than the exception.

Just down the road, West Virginia was enjoying some time in the national spotlight under coach Gale Catlett, and that only served to intensify the competition. Penn State, a charter Eastern Eight (now the Atlantic 10) member, dropped out after the 1979 season and returned for a short period in 1983.

Besides Penn State, the charter members were Pitt, Duquesne, West Virginia, Villanova, Rutgers, George Washington and Massachusetts. Villanova left after the 1980 season to join the Big East. St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island replaced Penn State and Villanova.

How big was the Eastern Eight tournament in Pittsburgh? In its final year, the championship game drew 16,056. Of all the conference tournaments in the country, only the Southeastern, at Lexington, Ky., and the Southwest, at Dallas, drew more fans for the final game. The Big East, not yet a dominant conference and in the last year the tournament was not played at Madison Square Garden, drew 14,044 at the Hartford Civic Center.

Although the Eastern Eight tournament did not need additional hype, events transpired to raise the intensity level several notches.

For one, like Villanova, Pitt was leaving the Eastern Eight to join the Big East, and the other schools didn't like it. The opposing coaches made their unhappiness known in their voting for the conference all-star teams. The case could have been made that Pitt's Clyde Vaughan was the league's player of the year. He led the league in points and rebounds. Yet, he did not make first team. Guard Dwayne Wallace, who led the league is assists, was not named to the first or second team.

Both players, it would turn out, would have their revenge.

But that drama was a distant second to what was transpiring between Pitt and West Virginia. Late in the season, Pitt had lost by five points at West Virginia, which was ranked sixth in the nation. Since Pitt was leaving the league, Catlett was asked about future games between the two long-time rivals.

"This may be the last time we play them. We really don't need Pitt," he said.

"Who are they ... a mediocre program ... to dictate to me. Before we're going to play Pitt, they have to talk to me. Roy Chipman hasn't called me about playing them. It's important to get the message to him that he better hurry up or we might not have room for them."

It's possible Catlett was just having some fun with the Pittsburgh media. But the words were not conveyed that way.

Chipman, the Pitt coach, did nothing to tone down the rhetoric.

"I don't feel I need to call Gale Catlett and beg him for a game. If he's waiting for that, he's going to have to wait a long time. He'll be waiting when his hair is gray. They'll have a new coliseum, and he'll still be waiting."

Pitt beat Duquesne by two and second-seeded Rutgers by 13 to advance to the finals. West Virginia beat Massachusetts and St. Bonaventure. The stage was set. There was a sizable contingent of West Virginia fans at the final, but they were dwarfed by the Pitt crowd.

Vaughan, the most underrated player in Pitt history, and Wallace were exceptional. Vaughan scored 21 point on 10-of-13 shooting and had 10 rebounds. Wallace scored 20 on 7-of-8 shooting and had seven assists.

With such performances, Pitt won, 79-72, to earn an NCAA tournament bid for the second consecutive year.

The final word went to Vaughan, who stepped out of his humble, gentlemanly persona to say what every Pitt fan wanted to hear:

"I don't think coach Catlett thinks we have a mediocre team anymore. If he does, I wonder what his team is?"

For Pitt fans, it couldn't have ended on a better note. Pitt was on to bigger and better things. So was the basketball scene in Pittsburgh. But as good as that scene is today, there's still nothing quite like the Eastern Eight tournament.

Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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