MISSOULA — Before Anthony Johnson staked his claim for the best individual performance ever by a Montana men’s basketball player, there was Eric Hays.
No, Hays didn’t score 42 points or his team’s final 21 in a title-clinching win, like Johnson did last week. And no, Hays’ team didn’t even win in the biggest game of his career, like Johnson’s did.
But people talk about Hays’ game 35 years later, much like people undoubtedly will about Johnson’s performance while rallying the Griz from a 22-point deficit to beat Weber State last Wednesday.
“Unbelievable,” Hays said in describing Johnson’s performance. “I don’t think I have ever seen anybody at any level take over a game like that. It was incredible. It was really interesting that when the game was over and (ESPN’s announcers) started talking about it, looking back and realizing that nobody else scored. He scored the last 21. And they weren’t easy shots.”
The remarkable win pushed the Griz to their eighth appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. The 14th-seeded Griz face No. 3 seed New Mexico on Thursday in San Jose, Calif. The game will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Marquette-Washington game, which begins at 5:20 p.m. MDT.
Lest anyone forget, Hays has the credentials to back up his assertions.
Hays, the lefty from Junction City, Ore., was cut before his sophomore season at Washington State, then followed WSU assistant coach Jud Heathcote to Missoula when Heathcote took the Montana job.
He walked on for the Griz, then teamed with the likes of Ken McKenzie, Micheal Ray Richardson, Larry Smedley, Tom Peck, Ben DeMers, Tim Stambaugh and Tim Blaine for the biggest win in Griz history in 1975, a 69-63 win over Utah State in the NCAA tournament. It stood as Montana’s only win in the NCAAs until the 2006 team upset Nevada in the opening round.
Waiting for Hays and the Griz in the next round were the mighty UCLA Bruins, coached by legend John Wooden.
The 6-foot-3 Hays had 32 points, seven rebounds and six assists as the Griz pushed the Bruins – who had six future NBA players on their roster – to the limit, leading for a spell in the first half and trimming a nine-point deficit to two with 1:10 to play. UCLA held on, 67-64, thanks to free throws from Marques Johnson and Pete Trgovich and went on to win its 10th national title in 12 seasons.
Hays, who went on to win more than 350 games as the Missoula Hellgate boys basketball coach, probably wasn’t the only fan to turn his TV off at halftime with the Griz trailing Weber State 40-20 last week.
“Then I turned it back on with about 14 minutes to go and saw they were coming back and said, ‘I can watch now,’ ” Hays said. “It was frustrating because you knew they were better than that.”
Did Hays flash back to his big game while watching Johnson take over?
“Actually, no,” Hays said. “Not until it was over. It was pretty intense watching it. ... Teams come back from 10, 15, 20 down and they catch up and they run out of gas. They end up losing momentum and losing the game. For the Griz to hang on like that and to continue to make plays every time down and get stops when they needed to, it was just a tremendous performance.”
Hays said his performance against UCLA and Johnson’s against Weber were very different.
“When I had my big game, I’d say it was more out of the offense,” Hays said. “I look back on mine and I can only think of one shot that I took that was a one-on-one type of move. We got ours out of transition and against their press in the first half. I got a lot of not easy, but good, shots. The second half, most of my baskets came on the backdoor or some kind of layin
“The big difference is that Anthony can create his own shot and he did. I didn’t have that ability to create my own. ... Anthony had guys right in his face and he has the great little cross-over move.”
There are other Grizzlies who have had great games; Richardson and Bob Cope shared the school scoring record at 40 before Johnson bettered it last week. But few have come under the spotlight of postseason play.
“I’ve always said that every basketball player at some point in their life has a game like that,” Hays said. “Anthony Johnson had his on a big stage. I happened to have mine on a big stage. Other guys might have theirs in city league, or in eighth grade, or in high school or somewhere. Everybody has one, a night where everything’s going in.”