On the eveningLouisville arrived in Birmingham for the Mideast Regional, senior Poncho Wrightled an expedition to the UAB campus, which is just across the street from thehotel where the Cards were quartered. Wright is the effervescent fellow whocoined a slogan for Louisville's surprising run to the NCAA title two yearsago—"The 'Ville [as in Louisville] is going to The 'Nap [as inIndia-nap-olis]." It played so well that this season Wright had to dealwith the pressure not only of helping the Cards work out of a horrendousmidseason slump but also of coining a slogan for the team's subsequent drive tothe Superdome.
Perhaps to escapethe pressure, or maybe just in search of inspiration, Wright decided toinvestigate this curious phenomenon known as UAB. On the maps of the collegebasketball world, the University of Alabama in Birmingham was terra incognitauntil five years ago, when Gene Bartow left another alphabet-soupschool—UCLA—to build a program from scratch. While walking around the campus,Wright and his pals discovered a bunch of restless natives taking part in thatold American ritual known as the pep rally.
"I just sortof got behind a big tree and peeked around," Wright said later. "We hadon our warmups and stuff. When they lit the bonfire, I decided it was time forus to get out of there." As it happened, both teams reached the finals onSaturday, but it was the Blazers who got burned as Wright & Co. wrought a75-68 victory.
Of the four teamsthat gathered last week in steamy Birmingham, UAB and Louisville were theoff-the-rack contenders, while the other Mideast competitors, Virginia andMinnesota, represented the Brooks Brothers of the college game—the ACC and theBig Ten.
Louisville'scredentials, however, did include the 1980 NCAA championship and a sizablecontingent of fans who like to paint their faces and use body language to spellout C-A-R-D-S. The Blazers, on the other hand, were so new to the game thatthey had as little backing as tradition. En route to winning the conference,Bartow's team of transfers, hand-me-downs and castoffs drew an average ofslightly more than 7,000 in the 17,000-seat Birmingham Coliseum across townfrom the campus—even though the team is built around a core of local productsled by Oliver Robinson. That splendid, 6'4" guard became the school's firsthigh school recruit because "I knew I could make the starting lineup—therewasn't anybody there."
In UAB's 68-66semifinal win over Virginia, Ralph Sampson had 19 points, but he wasn't therewhen it counted either. The top-seeded 30-4 Cavaliers lost track of their mealticket in the final 10 minutes of the game and couldn't get him the ball.
Louisville hadeliminated Minnesota 67-61, thanks to a superb offensive game by sophomoreGuard Lancaster Gordon (23 points, 10 of 14 field goal shooting) and anexcellent defensive job on 7'3" Randy Breuer. Although the Gopher giantscored 22 points, Louisville put the clamps on in the second half bydouble-teaming him with 6'8" sophomore Charles Jones and 6'7" juniorRodney McCray.
In the Saturdayfinal, UAB figured to give the Cards plenty of trouble before 16,754spectators, obviously including a good many newfound fans, but it was also theopponent of Louisville's dreams. The Blazers didn't have a dominating big manand were likely to play the Cards straight up, without holding the ball to killthe clock and neutralize Louisville's strengths—depth, quickness, a full-courtzone press and a devastating fast break.
In retrospect,considering the number and ability of Louisville's athletes, it seemsremarkable that in early February the Cards were only 12-8. But since thegraduation of Darrell Griffith to the Utah Jazz after the championship season,the Cards have had trouble defining and understanding their roles andrelationships; everyone wanted to take Griffith's place, but no one could.Understanding that, Crum decided to exploit his surfeit of talent by developingand utilizing a deep bench—even if it caused a few bruised egos and somelosses.
When a four-gamelosing streak—the longest since 1965—left the Cards 11-7, Crum put Jones on thebench, moved Rodney McCray into the pivot and installed 6'8", 220-poundsenior Wiley Brown at forward. Once the roles were defined, the next step wasto determine a star—the player who wanted, and who got, the ball when the teamneeded a hoop. It never happened. Instead, the Cardinals began to go with theflow, working hard to get the ball to whoever had the hot hand. The absence ofa dictator—a Sampson, say, or a Terry Cummings of DePaul—was overcome by a sortof democracy, with a new election held every game.
TheUAB-Louisville contest was a splendid example of basketball as it is meant tobe played, not as it has been abused in this season of stall-ball. As Eavessaid, "I give UAB credit for playing basketball. Not many teams do thesedays."
Having faced thelikes of DePaul, Missouri, Memphis State and Oregon State on the road, theCards weren't about to be intimidated by the UAB crowd or its mascot,Beauregard T. Rooster. Nor, for that matter, were they going to be cowed by theUAB players when, trailing by eight points at halftime, they came out lookingto beat Louisville at its own physical game.
In the firstcouple of minutes of the second half UAB sent Derek Smith and Brown out of thegame with, respectively, an elbow to the jaw and a shot to the groin. Nomatter. Crum's bench is so strong—his subs hit 11 of 14 from the floor—thatLouisville only gets better when the likes of Wright, Jones and Scooter McCraycome in. And with 7:23 left, it was a sub who made the play of the game.
With UAB ahead54-52 and visions of New Orleans dancing in Beauregard T. Rooster's head, Jonesgot the ball low. Spinning, he was confronted by Donnie Speer, a 6'8", 225pounder with mayhem in his heart. Speer didn't just foul Jones, he hammeredhim. Amazingly, Jones put the ball off the glass and through the hoop.
"When Ireceived the pass, I knew he was coming," Jones said after the game. "Itook the ball up as hard as I could and waited for him to foul me before Ireleased it. He hit me hard, real hard. His elbow hit me in the eye, so I lostcontact with the basket. I just tried to put it off the glass."
Although Jonesmissed the ensuing free throw, Louisville took the lead when freshman MiltWagner stripped Robinson and fed Rodney McCray for a roaring two-hand smash.Then, after a forced shot by Robinson, Gordon fed inside to Jones for anotherstuff. Leading 58-54, the Cards never trailed again.
As gutsy asJones's performance was—his 19 points included 13 free throws, most of whichcame in the closing moments—it was Smith who was Louisville's heart and soul.He came into the final with six stitches in his upper lip, the result of acollision in the Minnesota game. A sore jaw was a souvenir of Robinson's elbowearly in the second half. He also took a shot to the throat that almost costhim his voice.
"I don't wantto get hit in the mouth this many times ever again." Smith said, his voicecroaking. "My face hurts and my lips are sore. I've got a knot on my chinand I don't know what's wrong with my jaw." Nevertheless, he still was ableto work his battered face into a grin big enough to light up the Superdome ashe dribbled away the closing seconds of Louisville's victory.
Wright,meanwhile, was still working on the slogan. As he said after helping cut downthe net, "I haven't had any time for a rhyme."