It was never easy for Kentucky. There was never any time to sit and smile. From the very first game this season, the Wildcats were haunted by their tradition, pressured by their opponents and driven mercilessly by their coach. All of the joys of winning had to wait until they had won it all.
That glorious moment came last Monday night in the championship game of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. There was the marvelous Jack Givens, a net around his neck, and there, too, was Coach Joe Hall, the monkey finally off his back. And in the background a chorus of fans sang the poignant and appropriate lyrics from My Old Kentucky Home. "Weep no more my lady, weep no more for me."
If there were any Kentucky tears in the Checkerdome, they were tears of relief and joy after the Wildcats had defeated gutty Duke 94-88. But once again it had not come easy. Just when victory seemed certain and Hall had taken most of his starters out one by one to allow each his deserved acclaim, the Blue Devils cut a 13-point lead to six with 23 seconds left. Hall had to rush the regulars back into the fray to hold off Duke's last charge. Not until James Lee slammed in the final two points were the Wildcats certain they had triumphed.
But it was Givens who really won the game, scoring 41 points, his career high and just three points shy of the championship-game record set by Bill Walton in this arena five years ago. All night long the Goose was cookin', working the baseline, popping from the corners and sneaking into the middle. He swished 'em, he banked 'em, and when it was over, he thanked 'em. "We won it for the people of Kentucky," he said.
April 3, 1978
Givens has always been the most versatile of Cats. He has the shoulders of a Csonka and the grace of a Nureyev. But he has always been the blandest, too. "We haven't seen the films," he said with a straight face, "so we don't know how well we played."
Everyone else did. Kentucky was Givens, and Givens was great, scoring the last 16 points of the opening half as the Wildcats ran a one-point lead to seven. And after putting in 23 points in the first half, he added 18 in the second. Inexplicably, the Blue Devils did not come out of their zone defense until it was too late, and Givens just kept pouring in sweet jumpers, along with a selection of tips, layins and free throws. "When we saw how open Duke was leaving the middle, we junked our game plan and just tried to get it in to Jack," Hall said.
Though the Blue Devils did not recognize the need to adjust their defense soon enough, they were quick to appreciate a magnificent performance. "Jack Givens played the best game I have ever seen anyone play," said Duke's junior Captain Jim Spanarkel, who was no slouch himself with 21 points. "I guess we played him on a night we shouldn't have played him."
Givens was so devastating, hitting 18 of 27 shots, that only one other Wildcat could break into double figures. Appropriately, that was another senior, Rick Robey, who shot eight for 11, scored 20 points and led the Kentucky rebounders with 11. It was Robey, the 6'10" center-forward, who made the most spectacular play of the game. With 7:39 to go. Hall charged onto the court during a brief stop in play to chide Robey for some indiscretion. Seconds later Robey responded by grabbing a missed shot and jamming it into the basket in one motion.
The victory came 20 years after Kentucky's fourth and most recent national championship and none too soon for Hall and his Fysical Five. Like the two national champions before them, Marquette last year and Indiana in 1976, the Wildcat seniors made good on this trip, to the final four after failing as freshmen.
Considering the manic fervor of Kentucky fans, the Wildcats might have been hanged from the nearest Arch had they come up short again. That is the kind of pressure Hall and his teams have lived with the last four seasons, even while winning 102 games. "We are expected to win," Hall had said, "but I wouldn't want to be at a school where people didn't care."
At Kentucky they care a lot, and that intensity was reflected on the faces of the Wildcat players even before the game. During the introductions the young Duke starters—two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior—ran out smiling and hugging. The Kentucky players—three seniors, one junior and a sophomore—were grim, gritting their teeth. Duke Coach Bill Foster literally skipped to shake Hall's hand; Hall stalked.
For all their easy, breezy spirit, the Blue Devils could never get the lead. Just as they had done in the semifinals, Spanarkel, Mike Gminski and Gene Banks each scored 20 points or more, but that was not enough. "Kentucky," Foster summed it up, "is a great team."
The Wildcats showed it in the way they attacked Duke's zone and in the way they shut off the Blue Devils' transition game. The losers, who had pounded several previous tournament opponents with their fast break, got next to nothing from their running game against Kentucky. They made it close at the end, but they couldn't make it all the way back. "Give us a lot of credit," said Foster. "We've had a lot of fun and accomplished more than most people thought we could."
While Kentucky came to St. Louis seeking to fulfill its destiny, Duke, Notre Dame and Arkansas seemed thrilled merely to be part of the show. The prevailing opinion was that any one of the final four could win the tournament but only Kentucky could lose it. After all, the Wildcats had the highest ranking (No. 1), the best record (28-2) and the most experience. They had won the most demanding regional, defeating three regular-season conference champions. And, lest anyone forget, Kentucky is Kentucky, the school that has won more games and played in more NCAA tournaments than any other.
In striking contrast, Duke had finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference each of the previous four years before vaulting to second and winning the league tournament this season. "It's about five thrills for me just to come to St. Louis and practice," said Foster.
The coaches of the other teams, Digger Phelps of No. 6 Notre Dame and Eddie Sutton of No. 5 Arkansas, felt pretty much the same way. At a Friday night meeting of team, tournament and television network representatives, Phelps looked over at Sutton and, grinning, said, "Isn't it great to be here?" Sutton agreed that it certainly was but, as it happened, neither was able to enjoy himself for very long. The next afternoon both their teams fell behind and came up short in comeback attempts, the Irish losing to Duke 90-86, the Razorbacks to Kentucky 64-59.
The Blue Devils played brilliantly for 36 minutes against the Irish, building a 16-point lead, but they nearly threw the game away in the last four minutes, when turnovers, poor rebounding and Notre Dame's torrid outside shooting cut the margin to two. Duke was saved by its free-throw accuracy, which is not surprising because it led the country with a 78% average, and by Notre Dame Guard Duck Williams' miss of a 22-foot shot with 18 seconds left. Had his shot dropped, it would have tied the game.
Although Duke didn't score any field goals after Banks' three-point play with 3:55 to go, the Blue Devils sank 10 straight free throws down the stretch, and they made 32 of 37 overall. That was enough to hold off the Irish, who got scorching shooting from substitute Forward Tracy Jackson and, before his miss, Williams. "It was a gallant comeback," said Phelps, "but when you are playing catchup you have to be near perfection."
When time finally did run out ("I was about to call for a mechanic to check the clock," said Foster), the Blue Devils swarmed onto the court as if the national championship had been won. For the exuberant freshman Banks, the game's leading rebounder who also scored 22 points—a number of them on spectacular rampages to the bucket—the victory seemed enough for this season. "We're No. 1 for sure next year," he told his teammates in the shower. "Wait a minute," the older, wiser Spanarkel, who had 20 points, reminded him. "We're not done with this year yet."
By comparison, the second semifinal was a match of graybeards. Kentucky and Arkansas are senior-dominated teams, a primary reason why they had the best records in the country over the last two years. Experience enabled them to perfect their contrasting quick-vs.-strong styles, although neither played anywhere near perfection in a ragged game that was marked by excessive fouling and persnickety refereeing.
Sutton felt a closely officiated game would be to Arkansas' advantage, because it might limit the effectiveness of Kentucky's big bruisers, Robey and Mike Phillips. Instead, the non-stop whistling hurt the Hogs. By the half, the Razorbacks' two biggest starters, 6'11" Steve Schall and 6'7" Jim Counce, had four fouls each, and Kentucky was ahead to stay 32-30.
With their superior depth, the Wildcats were bound to win a war of attrition, and they did just that, as their reserves outscored the Razorbacks 19-3, with Lee getting 13 by himself. Among the starters on both teams, only Givens played to form, with 23 points and nine rebounds.
Because of the fouls, Arkansas spent much of the game in a zone instead of the stingy man-to-man it plays so masterfully. It was not until the Razorbacks reverted to their favorite defense midway through the final period that they were able to exert pressure and take full advantage of their quickness. The Hogs cut a nine-point lead to one with 3:31 remaining. That is as close as Arkansas got: on their one opportunity to pull ahead, the Razorbacks got the ball inside to Sidney Moncrief, a 60% shooter. This shot—like 21 others Moncrief and his Arkansas co-stars, Ron Brewer and Marvin Delph, put up—did not fall.
When the game was over, Kentucky felt more relief than satisfaction. "One more, one more, one more," Robey repeated in the dressing room. He was "counting down to the lone remaining accomplishment of his collegiate career, the NCAA championship. As freshmen, he, Phillips, Givens and Lee were on a team that reached the national finals before losing to UCLA. As sophomores they won the NIT, and as juniors they reached the East Regional finals. The game against Duke would be their last chance.
The possibility that these Wildcats might blow their final opportunity was a specter that haunted Hall all season. Though Kentucky was ranked No. 1 for all but two weeks, the coach chastised and criticized his players constantly, even suggesting at one point they might be immortalized as the Folding Five.
"We've fussed at each other a bit," he says, "but I had to create some controversy to offset all the extravagantly good things that were being said about our team—that it could win both the NBA and the NFL. I had to change the players' thinking so they wouldn't believe they already had it won."
Now that the season and the hassling that went with it are over, the players are free to think whatever they want. Even Hall had to admit that, yes, he liked what he saw Monday night.