The state of Oklahoma was frozen by an epic ice storm on January 17, 1987. But that didn't stop a frenetic fanbase from packing the Lloyd Noble Center to watch the visiting UNLV Runnin' Rebels take on their beloved Sooners.
UNLV was the undisputed #1 team in the country sitting at 15-0 when they headed to the Lloyd Noble Center in Norman, Oklahoma to take on the #16 Sooners (11-3). UNLV had beaten Oklahoma two months earlier in the second round of the Preseason NIT at the Thomas and Mack, a tournament the Rebels ultimately won at Madison Square Garden to help catapult them to the top of the rankings. At the time of their first meeting, UNLV was ranked #5 and Oklahoma was ranked #7, but the Rebels were able to secure a 90-81 in that first meeting.
This was arguably UNLV's best team ever and it was a OU's predecessor to a Final Four team the following year. Stacey King played a small role for the '87 Sooners and Mookie Blaylock was yet to arrive, but it was a good enough team to spend time in the top 10 and make it to the Sweet 16. The Sooners' loss two months later in the NCAA tournament was a two point game against Iowa, the team that UNLV squeaked by to make it to the Final Four.
As the first half wound down, the Rebels trailed the Sooners 46-48. With the last possession of the half, Gary Graham launched a three pointer while an Oklahoma fan blew an air horn. Play stopped as the ball snapped the net and the halftime clock expired.
Would the shot count? Would the play be repeated? Would there be a technical foul assessed to the home crowd? Was it a two pointer or was it a three pointer?
That's when the commentating crew of Billy Packer and more specifically, Brent Musburger, decided they'd join the officiating crew of Rick Wulkow, Mike Tanco, and Norm Borucki. To some old time Rebel fans, Borucki was the original Dave Hall, as the Rebels had been a victim to the PCAA official's controversial calls in prior years. Note how eager Musberger was to play a role in sorting out the confusion. In deciding whether it was a three pointer or a two pointer, Musberger tells the official that "you cannot tell from that replay because where the clock is superimposed, it's not definitive."
As it turned out, the final decision was to award Graham and the Rebels two points on the play and the two teams headed into the locker rooms knotted at 48 instead of the Rebels rightfully owning the one point lead.
Here's the controversy:
The post-first half, halftime, and pre-second half segments were dominated by discussions between Packer and Musberger, giving their opinions, pulling out the rule book, providing their own interpretations, and flip-flopping those opinions and interpretations. To begin the second half, Packer offers his own kiss of death with "let's hope that this game isn't decided by one point either way."
The final result:
Tarkanian was never one to make excuses or place blame on any specific play when taking a loss. Tarkanian downplayed the importance of the controversial play, though he did note that he thought it was a three pointer. Instead, he blamed staying in the trapping defense a little too long and he stated that the Rebels had a great opportunity to win at the end, which they did. On the last possession of the game, the Rebels trailed by one point. Wisely opting not to call a timeout after the Sooners go ahead bucket with 12 seconds left, the Rebels found themselves with two prime opportunities to grab a win on the road. But Armen Gilliam misfired on a wide open 12 foot jumper, a shot he is going to hit far more times than not, and Jarvis Basnight missed an easy tip at the buzzer. The final result, Oklahoma 89, UNLV 88.
The loss dropped UNLV to 15-1 but they rattled through the next 22 games, including an undefeated conference season and conference tournament championship. The 37 total wins on the season was a record that lasted for many seasons. The season ended at the Final Four in New Orleans by the hands of Bobby Knight and Steve Alford.
A couple of seasons later, a quasi-exhibition contest between the Rebels and Sooners took place at the Thomas and Mack Center. Many of the players were the same. As the teams made it out to center court and the tip was ready to be tossed, Rebel PA announcer Dick Calvert exclaimed, "Not so fast Oklahoma, you owe us something". And with that, the scoreboard clicked to UNLV 1, Oklahoma before the contest began.