Just when it looked as if none of the nation's top-ranked teams would find their way to Indianapolis, No. 2 Louisville flexed its muscles in the Midwest Regionals and vaulted into the final four. After squeaking by Texas A&M on Friday, the Cardinals erupted on Sunday before a crowd of 12,800 at the Summit in Houston and showed America exactly why they are 31-3 and favored to win the national championship. What they did was shut off LSU's explosive but high-strung attack, beat the Tigers up and down the court and whip them through the air and under the backboards. When LSU became desperate and began fouling, Louisville crushed the Tigers at the free-throw line. Amazingly, the Cardinals routed LSU 86-66 even though their All-America guard, Darrell Griffith, played only 18 minutes because of foul trouble. "I hate to say this," said LSU Coach Dale Brown. "But they completely deserved to win. We've played DePaul and Kentucky—two great ones—but Louisville is better than either of them. Considerably better."
Well, thank you for finally speaking up. Louisville and LSU had earned their berths in the Midwest championship game by squeezing out semifinal victories that were so unconvincing and irresolute that even their victims were unwilling to give them the customary good-loser praise. Louisville, which had gone into overtime before getting past Kansas State 71-69 in the second round, survived OT again in eliminating Texas A&M 66-55. And LSU had only slightly less difficulty with Missouri in a 68-63 win.
With DePaul knocked out of the tournament the week before, LSU and Louisville were the highest-ranked teams remaining, so it was no surprise that they should meet in the finals. On the afternoon before the game, Brown sat at a table in the Summit gulping down Cokes and explaining his game plan. He said rebounding would be crucial. He also said the only way to stop Griffith was to force him into foul trouble. "We'll post him, no matter who he guards. When he shoots we're going to move in on him and try to draw a charge."
The plan didn't work, but then it didn't have to. Griffith picked up his first foul on the opening tip-off. Less than four minutes later he committed No. 2. Then, with 9:23 still left in the half, he cut across the lane and accidentally nailed LSU Center Greg Cook for a third personal that sent him to the bench. LSU threatened to pull away, running off 16 straight points in one stretch to lead 29-21. But thanks mainly to Wiley Brown and Derek Smith, Louisville's outstanding sophomore forwards, the Cards stayed very much in the game, leading 31-29 at halftime.
March 24, 1980
"Griff realized we needed a fast start to keep them out of their stall," Louisville Coach Denny Crum said later. "He was overanxious to get us ignited."
After the intermission Griffith got Griffith ignited. In a 5:48 spurt, Louisville raced from 41-37 to 61-45 and the game was all but over. During the spurt Griffith fed two teammates for layups and made two of two free-throw attempts, one layup off an inbounds pass, one thunder dunk and three high-arching jumpers. "Our intention was to hit them with a flurry," he said. "You can say that we capitalized."
Though Smith and Brown give Louisville a potent inside game, the Cardinals are essentially a running team that presses 40 minutes a game and attacks at its best during transitions. And it is Griffith who gives the team legs. In his 18 minutes on the floor, he scored 17 points, dished out seven assists and caused probably half of LSU's 17 turnovers en route to being named tournament MVP.
In 1977 at the World University Games in Sofia, Griffith shook free on a fast break. Only a 6'2" Belgian player stood between him and the basket. Griffith stopped dribbling at the foul line, leaped into the air and dunked. There was a time-out as the arena erupted. Griffith turned to a teammate and said, "What's all the excitement about?" "Man," the teammate said, "you just jumped right over that dude."
A photo of the dunk appeared in the local papers, and Griffith became an instant celebrity in Sofia. He may become one in Indianapolis, too, if he jumps Louisville into the national title.