Remembering The Streak
Oct. 13, 2009
by Dick Dornan
MALIBU, Calif. - The West Coast Conference has provided some memorable moments in men's basketball throughout its duration since it was created in 1952. San Francisco, Santa Clara and Saint Mary's were three of the original five members (Pacific and San Jose State being the other two) that came together to form the California Basketball Association to play basketball in the Bay Area. Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount joined shortly thereafter in 1955, Portland in 1976, and Gonzaga and San Diego in 1979.
It has been a league defined by its great players, coaches, teams and a few incredible winning streaks. But none better than the winning streak by the Pepperdine Waves from Jan. 12, 1991 to Jan. 29, 1993, which ran for 32 consecutive regular-season league games (38 including the WCC Tournament).
As a young 20-year-old back in January 1989, I had the opportunity to watch the Waves battle #6 North Carolina in the packed confines of the Firestone Fieldhouse. It was a game that resonates in my mind today. The mighty Tar Heels came west to battle the little school from Malibu. Led by first-year head coach Tom Asbury, the Waves gave North Carolina everything it could handle in a 102-80 defeat, a game much closer than the final score indicated. Pepperdine displayed a mental toughness and a passion to compete that established the identity of Waves basketball for years to come and would form the backbone and foundation of Coach Asbury's first tenure as head coach from 1989-1994.
Little did I realize that two years later that the Waves would embark upon a streak that will be remembered for not only its number of wins, but for the resilient and tough-minded players who made it happen.
Before the Waves' amazing run, the San Francisco Dons were the proud owners of a 31-game winning streak in conference play from 1954-57. Led by two-time All-American Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Mike Farmer, the Dons dominated league play en route to back-to-back national championships in 1955 and 1956.
Not only did San Francisco win 31 straight conference games, but they also won 51 straight regular-season games and 60 consecutive overall, including NCAA Tournament games from 1955-57.
Incredibly, it would be another 36 years later before a team from Malibu would break the record. These Pepperdine Waves were special. They didn't possess a 6-foot-10 future NBA Hall of Famer patrolling the paint. What they did have were a group of great competitors who trusted in each other and had the uncanny ability to go on the road and defy all odds. The likes of Doug Christie, Geoff Lear, Dana Jones and Damin Lopez each possessed a 'refuse to lose' attitude that transcended to their teammates from one year to the next.
"It was a team that had mental toughness who were so competitive," Asbury said. "They executed better on the road than at home. They were such great competitors, very fierce. They made everyone else better."
The streak began following a home loss to San Diego that began the conference season on Jan. 11, 1991. The very next night the Waves regrouped and defeated Santa Clara, 67-61, behind Christie's 22 points.
Any kind of winning streak would not only include great execution but some luck thrown in there - literally. On January 26 at Saint Mary's, Lear scored 19 points but none more important than his 15 foot, off-balance, fading-toward-the-baseline shot at the buzzer that gave the Waves a thrilling 79-78 victory. The streak was only five games old.
"We were good but had some luck along the way," said Marty Wilson, an assistant coach then and now the associate head coach. "That shot could have easily bounced out."
But it didn't.
Six nights later and back at home, Pepperdine had to once again fight off the stubborn Gaels of Saint Mary's with an exciting 82-78 double-overtime win. Christie recorded a triple-double with 21 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds. It is believed to be the only triple-double in Waves history.
Pepperdine (which won the WCC regular-season title, finishing 13-1 and winning 13 in a row) won its first two WCC Tournament games, leading up to a third meeting with Saint Mary's for the tournament crown. Despite losing Christie to a knee injury in the opening round, the Waves would win their first-ever WCC tournament championship and complete the trifecta over the Gaels with another exhilarating triumph, 71-68, in overtime. Lear scored 32 points and grabbed 14 rebounds that earned him the MVP of the tournament.
In 1991, Christie was named the WCC's Player of the Year, Lear made his second All-WCC appearance and Jones was named the league's Freshman of the Year.
Three heartbreaking losses for Saint Mary's, while just one win over the Waves would have ended a streak that no one realized was just at its beginning.
"It takes some luck to have a streak like this," said Asbury, who won his first WCC Coach of the Year award that season.
With all five starters returning, the 1991-92 season proved to be one of the greatest seasons ever in Pepperdine lore. The Waves thoroughly dominated their league opposition by running the table with a perfect mark of 14-0 in league and 3-0 in the WCC Tournament. At the conclusion of the season, the streak stood at 33 overall (27 in the regular season).
The 17 wins vs. WCC opponents were by an average of 11.8 points and only five victories were in single digits. The home wins were as dominant as ever by a 15.7-point average margin of victory. Having a home crowd behind you is always important for home court advantage. But what separates the good teams from the great teams is the ability to win away from home. For the second consecutive season, the Waves went 10-0 against conference opponents on the road or at a neutral site.
"One key ingredient to the streak was that the team was ultra-competitive on the road," Asbury added. "When we hit the mid-20s, we started thinking, 'whew ... look at what we are doing here.' We had a good balance of shooters, smart players and even better competitors. They were such a good road team in a really good era."
One impressive part of the streak that gets overlooked -- with the exception of the coaching staff -- was Pepperdine's 27-game WCC road winning streak that began on March 3, 1990 and lasted until February 25, 1993. It included 21 road victories and six neutral-court contests at WCC Tournaments.
"The team had an 'everyone against us' mentality on the road," Wilson said. "We always told our players to treat it as a business trip. Take care of your business and we can go home. They knew what to do and they knew the plan. They challenged each other every day. Just some great people in the program. They became closer along the way."
Damin Lopez, the Waves' assistant coach now and the starting point guard for much of the streak, agreed with Wilson's thoughts.
"The bond and the trust that the team had in each other made it so much easier to go on the road. We had each others' back," Lopez said. "It was fun. Just watching the opponent and knowing and feeling that the tide was changing late in the game at the same time. With about five minutes left in each game, they knew, here we come. The opponents had a mental wall to overcome. You could see it in their eyes. We never lost our poise and our focus. We never lost our belief that we would win."
Lopez was the smallest player in the WCC at 5-foot-8 but had the heart and determination that stood out amongst all who challenged him or his teammates. He was the point guard, an extension of his coach on the floor. Yet Lopez knew what a special team he was a part of and where he fit in.
"I never felt that I had more responsibility than the seventh or eighth guy on the team," said Lopez. "Everyone knew their roles and that's why it was so unique. No one said to anyone else, 'you need to do this ...' We had huge trust in each other. Everything clicked in for a long period of time. The streak was high-pressure, intense and powerful in nature. Yet it was the most fun you could ever imagine."
The Waves rolled right along through their WCC schedule as the wins began to build up. With each win came more media exposure.
"It was hard to keep it away," Asbury stated. "It was such a big issue wherever we went and whenever we played."
In 1992, wins 28, 29, 30 and 31 came by 12 points or more. But in order to break the record of 31 straight, Pepperdine would have to beat the team that held the record, San Francisco, in the semifinals of the WCC Tournament in Portland, Ore.
The game wouldn't be easy by any stretch of the imagination. The Waves took a 29-28 lead into intermission. Trailing 65-63 with 29 seconds left, Jones made two free throws to tie the game. After a San Francisco turnover, the Waves had the ball for the final shot. Lopez was dribbling the ball and intended to take a desperation half-court shot for the win. Shockingly, a reach-in foul was called on USF with no time left. 0:00 on the clock, Lopez to the foul line for two shots. All that was needed was one make and the Waves have the record.
"Doug Christie came over to me and said, 'These are yours, big guy,' in his usual funny way," Lopez remembered. "I stepped to the line and hit them. There was hardly any pressure because at worst we were going to overtime."
No pressure? A chance to win a game with no time on the clock. A chance to move into the WCC's championship game. A chance to break a 36-year-old record. No pressure? Apparently not. He made both free throws.
"Damin was so fundamentally sound and mentally tough," Asbury said. "He was a great foul shooter who was oblivious to pressure. He had great confidence and he understood the game through our eyes."
Pepperdine won 67-65 and cemented its place in WCC history. Lear scored 20, Jones had 16, Christie added 10 and Lopez chipped in eight. The record was theirs! The Waves extended it to 33 consecutive wins the next day with a 73-70 victory over Gonzaga in the WCC championship game. Christie was named the Tournament's MVP after scoring 26 points, grabbing six rebounds, dishing out eight assists and collecting three steals.
The Waves had their second consecutive WCC regular-season title and WCC tournament championship. They became the second team to go 14-0 in league and win the tournament title in the same season. Asbury earned his second straight WCC Coach of the Year award while Christie won the WCC Player of the Year for the second consecutive time. Lear received his third All-WCC selection and Jones made his first All-WCC spot. Lopez was an honorable mention All-WCC pick.
Despite losing the likes of Christie and Lear, the Waves won a third consecutive WCC regular-season crown in 1993 behind the play of Jones, the WCC Player of the Year. They finished runner-up to Santa Clara for the WCC tournament title.
Pepperdine won its first five games in conference action to extend its WCC record to 38 consecutive wins over league opponents (32 regular season).
The WCC only takes into account regular-season wins in its record books, so when Pepperdine opened league play with five wins, it gave the Waves 32 regular-season victories in a row (38 overall) and the undisputed record. The final victory came against Saint Mary's on January 29 at home.
Ironically, on January 30 in Firestone Fieldhouse, the Waves had their streak snapped by the same team whose record they had broken: the San Francisco Dons, by a score of 75-72. Lopez was sidelined and did not play due to a broken hand.
In the 10 games Lopez was out, the Waves went 7-3. He didn't experience his next WCC loss in action until the defeat to Santa Clara and Steve Nash in the championship game. Lopez scored 20 points and made the All-Tournament team.
The streak was over in 1993 but the success continued for the Waves as they won another WCC Tournament title in 1994. Jones was named the tournament MVP. Asbury left Pepperdine after the 1994 season, but returned prior to the 2008-09 season to bring back the glory to a proud program. It was a special time for all the players, coaches, staff and the entire Pepperdine community. The future hopes to be too.
The numbers put up by Asbury's earlier teams are just staggering: 38 consecutive wins, 27 straight road triumphs, 16 straight home victories, 42-1 over 43 games, 46-2 over 48 games, 49-3 over 52 games and 52-4 over 56 games. During the memorable three seasons, the Waves won three WCC regular-season titles, going a combined 38-4, and capturing two WCC tournament championships, winning eight games and losing only to Santa Clara.
Seventeen years later and "The Streak" is still the record today. Gonzaga came close in 2007 when the Bulldogs had a 30-game streak snapped at the hands of Saint Mary's. The Zags currently own a 16-game WCC winning streak.
Statistics and numbers commonly reflect the success of a team. But what will be remembered the most are not just the amount of consecutive wins but the tenacity, desire, hunger, passion and ultra-competitive nature that the Waves' players and coaches possessed during one of the greatest eras in Pepperdine basketball history. Their character and competitive spirit will forever distinguish this team from the other great teams in WCC annals.
"The camaraderie was special. The players were selfless to keep the streak going," Wilson reminisced. "I'm still hungry to want to duplicate it."