Billikens have learned to walk tall NCAA TOURNAMENT

March 18, 1995|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff Writer

Wake Forest has a second-team All-American on the perimeter and a third-teamer in the lane.

Saint Louis starts a small forward who can't dunk.

Guess who's favored in today's second-round NCAA tournament game at the Baltimore Arena, and guess who's not intimidated?

"In every big game I've ever played here, the question has always been: 'How are you going to stop somebody or another?' " said Scott Highmark, the aforementioned vertically challenged Billiken at 6 feet 5. " 'How are you going to stop [Memphis'] David Vaughn? How are you going to stop Minnesota's big men?'

"Well, in just about every game, somehow, we were able to get it done. We want to win, and we think we can, but we know we're a big underdog. All of the pressure is on Wake Forest, and there's none on us. It's not a life-and-death situation, which is what I had to deal with when I first came here."

When Saint Louis held off Minnesota in overtime in the first round Thursday, it marked the college's first NCAA tournament victory in 43 years. After his freshman year with the Billikens, Highmark figured they were about another four decades away from getting back to the NCAAs.

"When I was a freshman, I just wanted to make the tournament just once in my career," Highmark said. "I didn't think it was feasible."

Highmark and Erwin Claggett, the Billikens' leading scorer, entered Saint Louis together in 1991. The coach was under pressure and the team was in turmoil, and by the time coach Rich Grawer was fired, five players also had split.

"It was nearly seven," said Highmark, who entered college as a hometown hero, the high school Player of the Year in the St. Louis area. "I talked to Missouri, and Erwin [Claggett] was ready to go to Iowa State.

"I was gone, but then I talked to some of Spoon's old players. They told me, 'At the end of four years, you'll run through a wall for him.' I was ready after two months."

"Spoon" would be Charlie Spoonhour, the coach who leads the subregional in gray hair and punch lines.

Spoonhour had been a small-college success at Southwest Missouri State and ushered that school into Division I, but his friends in the business told him he was crazy to take a dead-end job at a dead-end program.

Spoonhour figured Saint Louis would be elevated by its membership in the Great Midwest Conference. He also could rely on his track record at maximizing his players' strengths and minimizing their weaknesses. The Billikens had no business going 12-17 two years ago, the precursor to last season's 23-6 record.

"I saw them play Memphis and Penny Hardaway," said Carl Turner, a Saint Louis guard who was then a sophomore at San Jacinto Junior College. "They lost by two, and you could tell they were on to something."

Saint Louis doesn't have a starter over 6 feet 6, and Spoonhour has to devise all sorts of tricks to combat quality big men.

Maryland's Joe Smith was the insurmountable man in the middle last year, as his 29 points and 15 rebounds doomed the Billikens in the first round of the NCAAs. Six-foot-10 center Tim Duncan is this year's roadblock.

Wake Forest has Randolph Childress, but Saint Louis has some three-point potential of its own -- it takes 23 a game -- and a make-do lineup in which Highmark might match up with Ricky Peral, a 6-10 sophomore from Spain.

"Our perimeter players have more confidence to go out and defend knowing that Tim Duncan is inside," said Peral, a reference to Duncan's 124 blocks, the nation's fifth-best.

Highmark has 1,681 career points, 678 on three-pointers. He's a second-team all-star in the Great Midwest, and just as accomplished off the court. One of only three GTE Academic All-Americans in the tournament, he knows better than to drive past Peral and try to dunk on Duncan.

"I tried to tap-dunk once when I was a freshman," Highmark said. "I missed, hung on the rim and got called for a technical. I haven't tried a dunk since."

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