The Heart of a Lion Stops
On March 4, 1990, 11th ranked Loyola Marymount University (23-5) faced Portland (10-17) in the West Coach Conference finals. They had beaten Gonzaga 121-84 the night before.
It was the third-consecutive twenty-win season for the Lions, which had only one prior twenty-win season in 1961. The team, which ran on Coach Paul Westhead’s famous run-and-gun system, averaged an NCAA record 122.4 points per game.
It was led by two high-school classmates from Philadelphia guard Bo Kimble who led the NCAA in scoring with 35.3 game and center Hank Gathers who was averaging 29 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. (Gathers had led the NCAA in both categories the year before.)
Earlier in the season Gathers scored 48 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in a memorable showdown with an LSU team featuring Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Jackson which the Lions lost 148-141 in overtime.
In the first half against Portland, after Gathers converted an alley-oop pass to a slam dunk, tragedy struck as he collapsed at mid-court. He would be declared dead when he arrived hospital shortly thereafter, a victim of an irregular heartbeat. During a Today Show appearance earlier in the season, Gathers had bragged that he had the “heart of a lion.”
From Tragedy to Cinderella
Despite the tragedy, a grieving LMU went on an amazing run in the NCAA tournament that took them to the Elite 8.
They opened the tournament at The Pyramid in nearby Long Beach. Led by Bo Kimble’s 45 points, LMU beat New Mexico State 111-92, with Bo Kimble shooting his first free-throw left-handed in honor of his fallen teammate.
In the second round, Kimbell scored 37 points, but it was guard Jeff Fryer who led the team with 41-points behind a record 11 three-point baskets, as LMU beat defending champion Michigan 149-115.
In their Sweet 16 matchup, LMU had one last miracle as they beat Alabama 62-60 to advance to the Elite 8. Their Cinderella run came to an end against UNLV, as the Running Rebels held off the Lions 131-101. UNLV would go on to win the national championship.
Since Gathers death, LMU has had only four winning seasons and has not returned to the NCAA tournament since 1990.
In 1993, a cousin of Gathers died after collapsing during tryouts for a high school basketball team.