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END OF LINE FOR ONE OF YEAR'S BIGGEST SUCCESS STORIES

It wasn't the way BYU would have chosen to close out the season - losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by 11 to Louisiana State and allowing Shaquille O'Neal to block 11 Cougar shots and erase Shawn Bradley's NCAA tournament record of 10.

Still, there was some poetry in the blotting out of Bradley's accomplishment, which occurred a year ago when the 7-foot-6 BYU freshman blocked 10 shots as BYU beat Virginia 61-48 to open the NCAA tournament.Bradley left on an LDS mission to Australia shortly after that - and, in his wake, BYU spent the entire 1991-92 season making people forget about him.

This was supposed to be the year BYU played transition ball; the year the program was to spend the entire season at Earl Scheib's. Bradley, once the country's Biggest Recruit, and then the country's Biggest Freshman, was to be BYU's Big Excuse. The Cougars could finish fifth in the WAC - where they were predicted to finish - and miss out on the NCAA Tournament and not worry about it, because it takes a while to get over the trauma of playing without your pivotal player.

The Cougars started the season largely undefinable. Not only was Bradley gone, but so were three more starters from the 1990-91 team that went 21-13. Replacing seniors Scott Moon and Steve Schreiner and Ken Roberts, another Australian missionary, only further added to the rebuilding motif.

When coach Roger Reid assembled his new team on the first day of practice in mid-October he had the following blend: One returning starter, seven returning lettermen from 1991, two mission returnees, three transfers, one redshirt and one true freshman.

It wasn't a team, it was a pickup game.

But somehow the eclectic gathering came together more quickly than anyone thought possible. Nobody was treated like a new guy because almost everybody was a new guy.

Gary Trost, at 6-foot-10 a full eight inches shorter than Bradley, stepped into the center position, where he proceeded to play the equal of Bradley and then some, and the pieces fit into place around him. Point guard Nathan Call, the only returning starter, picked up where he left off, impersonating a pitbull; senior guard Mark Heslop took over for Moon; junior forward Jared Miller took over for Shreiner, and mission returnee Russell Larson stepped in to back up Trost.

For more good measure, a pair of junior college transfers, Kevin Nixon and Nick Sanderson, didn't play like junior college transfers. Instead of needing the requisite full season to adjust to major college basketball, they needed about a full week.

"It's funny, but we knew we could be a very good team the first week of practice," Nixon said last night after the loss to LSU. "In our first team meeting, coach (Tony) Ingle said this would be the best team any of us had ever been on, and that included last year's team, and we all felt he was right.

"We just knew we had talent, and we had great chemistry," said Nixon. "The perception by the public and the media was that we were supposed to be down. But we didn't feel that way at all."

So the team that was supposed to play .500 ball wound up going 25-7 and giving nationally-ranked LSU and The Magnificent O'Neal a genuine scare before bowing out of the NCAA tournament, 94-83, Thursday night in Boise State's Pavilion Arena.

"We played about as well as we've played," said LSU Coach Dale Brown. "And we were fortunate we did. (BYU) is by far the best 10th seed I've ever seen in the NCAA Tournament."

The Cougars of 1991-92 don't figure to go down in history because teams don't generally go down in history when they close the season by losing their NCAA opener - even if they did spend the year playing better without Shawn Bradley than with Shawn Bradley.

Nonetheless, for many reasons, BYU was one of the biggest success stories of the year in college basketball. The Cougars redefined a few parameters about regrouping and being competitive, about being more concerned with what you have than what you don't have. They weren't the only ones who spent the year on a mission.