It was close, but in the end nobody died or anything, because just when the anemic East Regional looked as if it might expire right there in the Providence Civic Center from ennui or some other French disease, Duke discovered a set of muscles and Spanarkeled itself into the final four. After dawdling past Penn on Friday, the Blue Devils showed that the East, too, will have a national-champion-caliber team in St. Louis, by beating Villanova's overmatched Wildcats inside and outside, by beating them up and down the court, by beating them on the beaches and in the air. Mostly, Duke beat Villanova upside the head in a 90-72 rout that was close for about as long as it took Curt Gowdy to mispronounce the names in the Blue Devils' starting lineup.
The East was supposed to be the weakest of the four regionals, and despite a lot of hilarious disclaimers aired in Providence last week, it was. Duke, Villanova, Penn and Indiana brought a total of 28 losses into the tournament, which people were calling embarrassing things like the Least Regional and The Little Regional That Couldn't. The citizens of usually basketball-crazed Providence apparently could not have agreed more; they left 1,096 seats empty during the finals Sunday.
Villanova and Duke earned their berths in the championship game by winning a pair of semifinals that were so heart-stoppingly exciting and well played that they seemed flat out of place in the East. The Wildcats scrambled by Indiana 61-60 in the first game, and Duke had only slightly less difficulty with Penn in an 84-80 victory.
Villanova got its win by holding the Hoosiers, except for Forwards Wayne Radford and Mike Woodson, to two shots in the second half. In what was apparently a vain attempt to balance that out, the Wildcats' freshman forward, Alex Bradley, held himself to one basket in 11 attempts. A reporter asked Villanova publicist Ted Wolff if Bradley had been suffering from a case of nerves. "Fear is not a word in Alex' vocabulary," said Wolff. However, brick, air ball and rock were all in his lexicon, and they indicated a flaw in Villanova's game that would soon be telling.
March 27, 1978
Duke, which had played well only in spots during a 63-62 win over Rhode Island in its first-round game, continued its roller-coaster ride against Penn. Center Mike Gminski wandered through the semifinal looking as if he had lapsed into an irreversible coma until, with 8:20 left and his team trailing by eight, he blocked three successive Quaker shots and turned the game around. Afterward, Penn Coach Bob Weinhauer said that Duke was big but slow, an idea that had gained considerable cachet by Sunday. Unfortunately for Villanova, that kind of talk was not only wrong, but also served to arouse the Blue Devils. "The man did all that talkin'," Gene Banks of Duke was to say later. "He just went and made us mad."
If that's what Weinhauer did, Duke Coach Bill Foster should thank him all the way to St. Louis. The Blue Devils took the opening tip against Villanova and ran and ran and ran. Then they ran some more. With 6'5" Guard Jim Spanarkel handing out assists with all the nonchalance of a Vegas dealer, Duke raced to a 21-6 lead in the first seven minutes and held a wide margin most of the way. Villanova did not help itself by throwing the ball away without a shot on four of its first six possessions, and the Wildcats didn't break into double figures until 8:35 remained in the half. Once before the intermission, they fell behind by 21. From then on, watching the officials try to figure out when to call the TV time-outs was about as exciting as the game got. Duke shot 78.3% in the second half—and 65% for the game—while all of Villanova's players seemed to have taken lessons from Bradley as they hit 41.8% of their shots.
Though Gminski and Banks give Duke a powerful inside game, the Blue Devils are essentially a running team. And it is Spanarkel who pulls the trigger on the Duke break. Against Villanova he was merely unbelievable, hitting nine of 11 shots for 22 points and getting six assists—two of them behind-the-back gems—en route to winning the tournament's Most Outstanding Player award—yes, that's what the citation says. "I think they underestimated our speed." said Spanarkel.
For Villanova, it was an unhappy finish to what had the makings of a heart-warmer. The Wildcats' last appearance in an NCAA regional final was in 1971, but you wouldn't know it by reading the official guide. Villanova star Howard Porter later was discovered to have played in the tournament even while his signature was on a pro contract. That no-no resulted in all mention of the Wildcats' postseason achievements that year being expunged from the records. Porter and his teammates became non-persons as far as the NCAA is concerned, and the only trace that remains of them is the word "vacated" where their scores and accomplishments once were listed. After having Duke jump up and down on them last week, the Wildcats must have thought that, all things considered, "vacated" sounded pretty good.