Amelia Rayno, our Gophers hoops reporter, has a blog posted hinting that Michigan State's Dwayne Stephens could be a front-runner if Woody Teague, the AD, decides to go the assistant coach route in replacing Orlando Smith.

You remember Orlando, right? For his most of his life, Smith went by the nickname Tubby, but he now has a longer and more accurate handle: The King of the Soft Landing.

First, Smith escaped the heat in Kentucky and hired himself at Minnesota, starting with a $1.8 million per year salary and working his way up to the $3.35M that he will receive for being asked to leave the Gophers last week. Eight days later, Tubby was in Lubbock, Tex., landing softly again with a five-year contract expected to gross $9 million or so.

Good for Tubby; he's an OK chap.

As for Dwayne Stephens, I don't know much about him, except that I can't hear his name without laughing in recollection of one of my all-time favorite postgame press conferences.

It was March 17, 1990, and the occasion was the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament in Knoxville, Tenn. The main character was Jud Heathcote, the coach of the No. 1-seeded Spartans. Heatchote could be hilarious and he was at best on this night, particularly on the subject of Stephens' dramatics at the end of  a needlessly tight victory over UC-Santa Barbara.

Here is an editied version of my on-site report in the next morning's Star Tribune:

Michigan State - the Big Ten champions and the No. 1 seed in the Southeast Region - must have arrived in Knoxville last week with every intention of being eliminated. On Thursday, the Spartans were forced to go to overtime to defeat Murray State, the lowest-seeded of 16 teams in the region.

In the second round, the Spartans had the privilege of playing Cal-Santa Barbara, a team that should change its nickname from the Fightin' Gauchos to the Comatose Cowboys …

When the game was over, Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote looked as happy as Daniel Ortega when he heard the Nicaraguan election results. The Spartans managed to turn a 14-point lead into a 62-58 victory by making the least of the traditional late-game march to the free-throw line.

"We're elated over two things," Heathcote said. "We won, and the game finally ended. The way Kenny Redfield was missing the front of those one-and-ones, I wasn't sure we would ever get out of here'' ...

Santa Barbara scored seven points in the first 11 minutes of the second half. That left the Gauchos trailing 37-27 after 31 minutes of all-stop action. Carrick DeHart, the leading scorer in Gauchos history, missed an open three-pointer. Eric McArthur, the leading rebounder in Gauchos history, rebounded and missed the layup, then committed his fourth foul. After Redfield made two free throws, Santa Barbara guard Paul Johnson bounced the ball off his right foot and out of bounds.

"We were not overly intensified or unintensified for this game," McArthur said. "We were ready to play."

DeHart preferred to applaud the Gauchos for remaining reasonably celibate.

There are a lot of distractions in a place like Santa Barbara," DeHart said. "If you can go to school there, and spend five hours a day or whatever it takes to succeed in coach (Jerry) Pimm's program, and not be looking at the skirts, you can be proud of yourself. I look at us going this far in the NCAA tournament as telling people we've been able to resist the temptations."

McArthur, the 6-7, 210-pounder, had the task of exchanging lumps with Spartans such as Mike Peplowski (6-10, 270), Matt Steigenga (6-7, 220) and DWAYNE STEPHENS (6-7, 215). McArthur was asked to confirm Michigan State's physical nature.

"They were aggressive, but they weren't the most physical team we played," McArthur said. "Pacific and Utah State were more physical. Michigan State was right behind those two teams."

After the first two rounds, that's quite a tribute to the Big Ten champs: They are almost as physical as Pacific and Utah State.

"I had a radio guy interview me outside the locker room and he said, `Coach, for a No. 1 seed, you don't look too good,' " Heathcote said. "I said, `You're right. We're not trying to look good. We're trying to win.' This was not a classic to watch, but it was a classic to win …

"At least, DWAYNE [Stephens] came off the bench and electrified the crowd with his slam dunk at the end of the game.’’

The Spartans were leading 62-56. There were 17 seconds left. Stephens broke free. He missed the dunk. He hung on the rim and was called for a technical foul. Two free throws cut the lead to four points, and Santa Barbara missed a three-pointer.

"It's over," Heathcote said. "We're headed to New Orleans.’’


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