As the sun warmed and dissipated a persistent fog last Saturday morning, an eerie sight rose up on the edge of downtown Peoria. Outside a Quonsethut structure, a swarm of college students stood grim vigil, clothes unkempt, hands blackened from bonfires, eyes reddened by the evening watch. They were not queuing up for a Bob Dylan concert or a speech by William Kunstler. This day the theme and the message promised to be even shriller and more jarring. It was showdown time in the Valley.
Bradley and Louisville were meeting for the Missouri Valley Conference title, a little nugget that goes a long way in the end of the season assay. Mo-Val may read like the bumper sticker of two hillbilly sweethearts, but the league champion has been in the NCAA final round three of the last five years. No wonder Bradley students started standing in line for seats late Friday afternoon.
As it developed, their anticipation was rewarded. The game was a classic, a bitterly contested, cleanly played gem that Louisville won 87-84 in overtime. Junior Bridgeman scored on a three-point play with seven seconds remaining as Louisville went through the crucial moments with its two top players missing on fouls and a pair of substitute freshman guards pulling the strings. It was Bradley's first loss of the season in Robertson Memorial Field House, which is nothing much more than two airplane hangars sewn together, with acoustics like the inside of a drum. Opponents usually leave there with Orphan Annie eyes.
Bradley began the afternoon a game behind Louisville in the standings, but seemed on its way to forcing a playoff as it nursed a two-point lead into the final minute of overtime. Then Braves Center Greg Smith reached out to try for the nail-down points and fell off the mountain. He missed a short jump shot that hit the rim and bounced away, and Louisville sub Ike Whitfield turned it into a fast-break lay-in. Another miss by Bradley's Doug Shank set up the final play, with Bridgeman breaking clear and receiving a swift pass from freshman Guard Billy Harmon. The sound of Bradley hearts breaking could be heard all the way to Chicago.
The Braves spent much more than effort in this game, and did not get back any change. At the beginning of the season, they were picked to finish sixth in the Valley, but urged on by their indefatigable coach, Joe Stowell, a diminutive Rumpelstiltskin who windmills up and down the sidelines, they had inched up close enough to feel the warmth of the sun. "A lesser team than Louisville would have folded," said Stowell afterward, his voice hoarse and choked.
Stowell and Louisville Coach Denny Crum are antitheses in style and looks. The Bradley coach is a 47-year-old who talks in the quicksilver tongue of a Beat the Clock contestant. His pasty skin makes him look as if a vampire has been after his jugular. Crum, on the other hand, epitomizes the neo-coach: double-knit slacks, patent-leather pumps, spray-lacquered razor cut, spiffy smile. He turned 37 on Saturday and has the charm and persistence of a storm-window salesman. Since he moved from an assistant's post at UCLA three years ago, he has kept the rest of the Valley out in the cold. The Cardinals have won two titles, finished second once and have an overall record of 68-17.
During a game Stowell's posture runs the gamut from supplication to rage, from disgust to elation. After mistakes he screams his torment at the offender, then skitters up and down the bench to bark at the subs. Each day he is on the court 45 minutes before practice to play in three-on-three games with his players—elbowing, diving for loose balls, a middle-aged man employing a Kamikaze defense. "That's the only way to play," he sputters. Says Greg Smith, "He gets out there and goes crazy."
Despite their differing personalities, Crum and Stowell are friends. While scouting Louisville, Stowell sent a note to Crum that read, "I will beat you in gin rummy March 1." Answered Crum, "I hope he brings his credit cards." The game never did come off. Maybe Stowell figured he already had lost enough money. His team bus got a speeding ticket on the way to Drake earlier in the week.
Smith is typical of the Braves' players. Only 6'5", he chose Bradley because he did not think the university could recruit a really big man to supplant him. Now he is a sophomore with an 18.5 average. "Smith might be the only college center who can't dunk," says Stowell. "He looks like he can't play. He's chubby. But he gets the ball in the basket." Against Louisville, Smith scored 14 points despite a sore thumb that was dislocated two weeks ago, and he caused Wesley Cox, the visitor's sensational freshman center, to foul out. Explaining his success against bigger opponents, Smith said, "Everybody I play says I'm dirty out there."
Louisville has a size problem of its own because its regular big man, Bill Bunton, is academically ineligible. The Cardinals do have some jumpin' jack flashes, which is part of the reason they are able to dare opponents into shooting, then swat the ball away while it is in mid-flight. Bill Butler, a 6'1" forward, has a Mickey Rooney jump. His 42-inch spring is almost as high as the actor. He led both teams in rebounding Saturday with 12.
Cox was the most highly touted player to come out of the Louisville high school system since Wes Unseld. Crum first started thinking about Cox three years ago after seeing him play in a summer recreation league. When Cox joined the Cardinals, he promised, "Before I leave here, we are going to go further than Jim Price and his teammates went." Price played on the UL team that lost to UCLA in the 1972 semifinals. Cox is not the Valley's most affable soul. Frequently, he will admit only his name, rank and serial number to reporters. It isn't that he is surly. His mother scolds him if he gets too much publicity.
All great players make hard plays look easy. Cox makes impossible plays look hard. Against St. Louis last week he scored 11 field goals and nine of them were sprinkled with wizardry. Against Bradley his wand paled and he scored only 10 points, but he had nine rebounds and returned four shots direct to their senders.
Louisville's best shooter is Allen Murphy. After he was called for a series of walking violations in an earlier game, Murphy said, "These legs have an infliction—the Murphy shuffle." The Cardinals' favorite out-of-bounds play is a lob over a triple screen to Murphy for a 20-foot jump shot. He is making almost 85% of those, although he did not try one against Bradley. He did, however, score 10 points before joining Cox on the bench with five fouls. It was his 37th straight game in double figures.
Bradley's frenzied defense rattled Louisville, but the Cards have had problems like that all season. Once after a ball flew out of bounds and knocked a phone off a courtside table, Junior Varsity Coach Jerry Jones ran over, picked up the phone and yelled, "Hello. Hello. We just threw the ball away again."
Louisville had more than 30 turnovers against Bradley, and many of them were forced by frenetic Guard Tom Les. Les prevented two Louisville lay-ins by diving through the air and tipping the ball away from behind. Once he knocked it up in the air, caught it and flipped it back to a teammate before he slid out of bounds.
This type of play, plus the shooting of Mark Dohner, enabled the Braves to stay close in the second half and overtime. Dohner was booed much of last year but the junior forward had been Bradley's leading scorer in the three games prior to Louisville. He made four of five shots after halftime and finished with 17 points, one fewer than Jim Caruthers. It was Caruthers who put the game into overtime with a corner jump shot.
In the early part of the game, Louisville made Bradley appear to be moving in slow motion. The Cards rolled to a 27-16 lead before the fouls started to mount. "Anytime a team plays with that much intensity, you're not going to stop them," Crum said.
But Louisville did stop them and Bradley wound up losing a dream that almost turned into reality.
Later Stowell slumped in bitter dejection and Crum happily bit into a birthday cake served on the Cards' charter flight back home. But for a shot that hit the rim and came off, the taste in his mouth might have been different.