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No. 2 in The Untouchables: Pete Maravich’s absurd career scoring average

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Pete Maravich averaged a record 44.2 points per game in three seasons at LSU (AP)

The Untouchables is a 10-part series spotlighting college basketball's most unbreakable records. Up next is No. 2: Pete Maravich's career scoring average of 44.2 points per game.

Instead of commemorating one of her husband's finest basketball moments, former Alabama guard Bobby Lynch's wife delighted in poking fun at him a bit.

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Hanging on the walls of the frame shop the couple owns is a 30x40-inch picture of LSU legend Pete Maravich shooting over Lynch during a 1970 game in Tuscaloosa. The caption beneath the photo reads, "Bob held him to 69 points."

"It's a very big conversation piece," Lynch said with a chuckle. "Anyone who's a sports fan who knows anything about basketball, that's one of the first things they ask about."

Lynch can take solace that many other SEC guards from that era have similar horror stories from their days defending Maravich. The kid with the shaggy hair and floppy socks broke the NCAA record for points per game each of his three seasons at LSU and averaged a stunning 44.2 points per game in his career, almost 10 more than any other Division I player in history.

It's a testament to the creativity and showmanship of Maravich that opposing defenders he scorched more than four decades ago still enjoy reliving those games today.

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They remember surrendering 40 points to Maravich and rejoicing at holding him below his average. They remember falling victim to his array of fall-away jump shots, through-the-legs dribbles and no-look passes. And they remember marveling that fans in basketball-apathetic SEC cities flocked to see Maravich in such numbers that overflow spectators packed the aisles.

"He was as great a showman as the game has ever seen," former Auburn guard John Mengelt said. "He was going behind the back or through the legs during games before everybody else did that stuff. He was so entertaining that sometimes as an opposing player you'd literally get caught watching him."

Basketball was an afterthought at LSU before Maravich, but the legend of "Pistol Pete" spread quickly once he arrived in fall 1966. Press Maravich, LSU's newly hired coach, bragged to anyone within earshot that his son was going to revitalize basketball at the school, a bold vow that came true sooner than anyone could have guessed.

During Maravich's first season at LSU, the freshman team often drew more than twice as many fans to its games as the struggling varsity did. The following year, Baton Rouge's NBC affiliate began bumping The Johnny Carson Show to air replays of LSU home games. By the time Maravich was an upperclassmen, he made basketball so popular in Louisiana that sporting goods stores couldn't keep balls or goals in stock around Christmastime.

Maybe the greatest measure of Maravich's popularity came at the end of his senior season when LSU played in the NIT semifinals in New York City. An unfamiliar man showed up at Madison Square Garden during the Tigers' practice claiming he'd found Maravich's wallet the night before.

"Turned out he was a cab driver," former LSU sports information director Bud Johnson said. "I always said that was the first time in history that a cab driver in New York returned somebody's wallet."

One reason Maravich won over legions of new fans was he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted when the ball was in his hands.

Since LSU went 9-43 in the two years prior to Maravich's varsity debut and had minimal SEC-caliber talent besides him the following season, Press Maravich instructed his son to shoot whenever he had even the slightest opening. The strategy didn't change the following two seasons even though the Tigers recruited better players to surround their star.

LSU's entire offense ran through Maravich, whether it was him leading a fast break, creating off the dribble or running around a flurry of screens to get an open look. Critics contended the Tigers may have been more successful if they ran a more balanced system rather than having Maravich shoot 38 times per game, but LSU finished .500 or better all three years he played and went 20-8 when he was a senior.

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"Someone once asked me what it was like guarding Pete with all those screens they set for him, and I said, 'It was like trying to catch a house fly in a really dark room full of refrigerators,'" former Georgia guard Herb White said. "You were just running around, grabbing and you keep running into things you can't see."

Nobody found a foolproof method to hold Maravich in check, but SEC teams exhausted every possible idea searching for a solution.

Some trapped him in the corners and off ball screens. Others played junk defenses geared to stop him. Tennessee probably enjoyed the most success by slowing the pace of the game to a standstill.

Mengelt, the former Auburn guard, said the key to defending Maravich was forcing him to take difficult shots in order to get his buckets.

"His dad wanted him to average 50 a game, so he was going to get his points," Mengelt said. "You had to try to make him take more shots to get there so everyone else wouldn't get shots and they wouldn't play as hard.

"The second thing I tried to do was not let him get to the foul line. I personally thought Pete was the greatest scorer of all time but only a good shooter. He was streaky shooting, but if you put him on the free throw line he'd kill you."

Maravich stamped his name into college basketball lore with numerous memorable games, from leading an upset of ninth-ranked Duquesne in 1968, to outscoring the entire St. John's team in the second half in 1969, to dropping 64 points on SEC champion Kentucky in 1970. Still, maybe his most legendary performance came in a double-overtime victory at Georgia during his junior year.

With Georgia trailing by eight and desperate to foul in the final minute of double overtime, Maravich unleashed a Globetrotter-esque dribbling exhibition to run out the clock. Then he astonished the Georgia crowd again by scoring his 57th and 58th points of the night just before the final buzzer, flipping up an audacious 35-foot hook shot that went in as time expired.

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"It wasn't the game winner, but it might as well have been," White said. "Our fans came pouring out of the stands. They lifted him up on their shoulders. The cheerleaders were dancing around him. It was just a mad house. That was the kind of excitement he generated."

If the Georgia game was Maravich's signature performance, his career high 69-point effort against Alabama wasn't far behind. The Tuscaloosa crowd erupted with every basket the home team scored and roared again each time Maravich answered with a bucket of his own.

One reason it's easy for Lynch to chat with customers at his frame shop about Maravich's rapid-fire offense that night is because Alabama eked out a 106-104 victory. That eases Lynch's pain at being the primary defender on Maravich the night he scored his career high.

"Everybody knows he scored 69 points on me, but I have to remind everyone we won the game," Lynch said.

That's why Lynch had his wife put the final score on the photo of him and Maravich hanging in his shop. It's the perfect comeback for the needling he takes for being Maravich's whipping boy.

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