Was it the 24-year gap between games that did it? Or the fussin' and feud-in' proximity of neighbors who live barely 75 miles apart, as the bluegrass grows? Or the importance of the occasion—the finals of the Mideast Regional, from which only the winner would have a chance at the national championship? Surely it was all these things and more that lifted Louisville's 80-68 overtime victory over Kentucky last Saturday from the merely extraordinary to a game that people will remember as long as the ball remains round.
Why, if this wasn't a veritable Kentucky Derby of a confrontation on the fast Tartan track of Knoxville's Stokely Athletics Center, it will have to do until the real mint juleps are served. The Dream Game That Finally Came, it was billed in one of many hypes. At the post were Cardinal Coach Denny Crum in a red jacket. Wildcat Coach Joe B. Hall in blue and the governor of the Commonwealth and his dieting dervish of a first lady—John Y. and Phyllis George NFL Today Brown—wearing red and blue. There were the Louisville and Kentucky cheerleaders linking arms, spanning the court and revolving in a long straight line to the emotional strains of My Old Kentucky Home. And there was the star-to-be of the game, a thoroughbred of an athlete named Lancaster Gordon (no. not out of Ruth Gordon by Burt Lancaster) furiously chomping at the bit along with the rest of the players.
Once the race began. Kentucky appeared to have it won in the first half, only to have Louisville just as assuredly lock it up in the second, only to have the Wildcats dramatically tie the score at the regulation buzzer. Finally, incredibly, the Cardinals roared away to steal and block and dunk and erupt for 14 straight OT points. Gordon, who had 24 points and four steals on the day, and Milt Wagner—10 points in the overtime—led a charge in OT that was as devastating as anything Secretariat ever did in the home stretch. "We snowballed 'em," Crum conceded. "It was kind of spectacular."
But weep no more, my lady—for Kentucky, for the embattled Hall or for his much maligned 'Cats, who were obviously out-quicked, out-jumped and overmatched at practically every position, but who kept clawing back into the fray before ultimately submitting to what Hall called "a super team, the best team in the country."
April 4, 1983
If Louisville is that, the Wildcats can't be much worse. What a revelation that is. After all, this was the alleged choke-in-the-big-ones Kentucky, which shot 56.1% from the field and still lost. These were the haunted 'Cats, perpetrators of recent NCAA foldups against the likes of UAB and Middle Tennessee State. Yet Kentucky held the renowned high-wire artists from up Interstate 64 to a virtual standoff on the boards (28-27, Louisville). These Wildcats failed only because over the last 25 minutes the deep and deadeye Cardinals forced 14 turnovers and shot 22 of 27—an astounding 81.5%.
It was on March 13, 1959, Friday the 13th, that these two old non-rivals—"A rivalry that never was," says Crum—had last met. Louisville stunned No. 1 ranked Kentucky 76-61 in the, yes, Mideast Regional at Evanston, Ill.
What bothers Crum isn't so much that Kentucky refuses to schedule Louisville. He isn't naive; Tennessee won't touch Memphis State either, for instance. Crum is bugged by what he perceives as an arrogant, condescending attitude emanating from the state university. And, of course, there was a certain CBS-TV tape on which Hall was asked to explain why he doesn't play Louisville. He replied: "Cut, cut...could we dissolve here? Is it [the tape] off?"
Before game day the two coaches insisted they actually were quite friendly—"We both agreed we'd rather be fishing," Crum said—and then they began unloading none-too-subtle broadsides. Crum called the Wildcat Lodge, Kentucky's athletic dorm, "an isolation ward. We don't hide. We live like normal human beings." Then he added, "The pressure is on Kentucky. Our record is better the last 10 years. They have a chance to carve into our success."
Initially, Hall had preferred the underdog's collar. He even blamed Crum for the teams' not playing as recently as November in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass. "They made a choice not to play us of their own free will without any pressure from the public or the fans," Hall said. Crum was ready for that, too. He said such a game was a setup defeat—his less experienced Cards versus a veteran Kentucky. "My name's Tucker, not sucker," said Crum, whose name honestly is Denzel, not Denny. "Joe wanted the best of all worlds. Let's play in the state, not Massachusetts. They may beat us by 20 and he may outcoach me, but the reverse could happen, too. They're not playing an empty chair."
Nor to any empty seats. Scalpers were getting as much as $1,000 a pop. "Give our fans a choice to win the national championship game or beat the Kentucky Wildcats and they'd take this one right here," said Louisville Assistant Coach Jerry Jones. "This is the nation that counts."
Kentucky's Bret Bearup, a loquacious reserve forward, was even more forthcoming. "Anybody on either side who says he hasn't been thinking about this matchup since the tournament started is just saying what he's supposed to say so he won't get in trouble," he said. "I say what I'm not supposed to. I've been dreaming about this game. This is great stuff. 'Course now I'm in big trouble."
In the regional semis on Thursday, the Commonwealth cleared the decks with Kentucky's 64-59 win over Indiana and Louisville's 65-63 defeat of Arkansas after the Cardinals had trailed by 16.
Saturday afternoon Kentucky ambushed its city cousins, opening up a 23-10 lead after the first 9:45. By half-time Kentucky had permitted the Doctors of Dunk precisely zero dunks and had turned the ball over only four times while shooting 62.1% in constructing a 37-30 lead. But right after intermission Louisville stormed the barricades. In the locker room Crum had told his charges Kentucky had shot its wad. He asked for "just a little more pressure." And. sure enough, over the first 4:43 of the second half the Cards' more aggressive 2-D, or "denial." press caused six turnovers. Louisville cut the margin to 45-42. And less than four minutes later—Scooter McCray swatting shots and intercepting passes, the spectacular Gordon practically somersaulting for baskets as if there was no tomorrow, which there wasn't—Louisville had its first lead, 50-49, after a Gordon breakaway. "We could see they were worried and confused." Scooter would say later.
But there was still some fight in the old 'Cats yet. The lead was exchanged a few more times and Kentucky fought back from a five-point deficit to a 60-60 tie. After a Louisville mistake, Kentucky had possession, so the Wildcats stalled, hoping to take the final, regional-winning shot. But at :15 Dirk Minniefield's flying drive to the hole was blocked by Charles Jones. Instantly Scooter rebounded and outlet-passed to brother Rodney, who fired to Gordon, who converted the transition eight-footer. Just like that: Louisville 62-60 with 10 seconds left. But Kentucky had one last ace for the Cards, that being the flame-throwing Jim Master, who had already made seven brave baskets from everywhere except the World's Fair grounds. When the Louisville defenders unaccountably failed to pick him up. Master fired one more time as the gun sounded. The match was even, 62-62.
"I hate overtimes," Gordon was to say later. "It's like practice is over and you got to practice five more minutes." But Gordon must have loved this one. After Jones won the tap, Gordon hit a fadeaway jumper from the left baseline. Then he stole a pass intended for Minniefield and again scored on a hanging jumper to make it 66-62. "I saw it slipping way." said Hall, who was powerless to do anything about the explosion—and those 14 consecutive Louisville points that swirled in like a monsoon.
The Cards were in their steal-and-sling-and-slam drill now, and two more Scooter pilfers led to four more Louisville points (70-62). "I thought uh-oh, showtime." McCray. S., said. "Might as well show everybody we're still the Doctors." The game was over barely 2½ minutes after the overtime began.
When it was officially over. Scooter and Jones, who split 14 rebounds and a like number of intimidations, were at the Kentucky bench offering condolences all around. "I know it had to be hard on them," McCray said. Then he joined his brother to lead cheers and joyously spell out C-A-R-D-S with their arms and legs, undoubtedly contemplating Albuquerque, where Rodney will be making his third appearance in the Final Four.
In the winners' locker room after the game Hall congratulated the Louisville players. "Good game. Scooter." he said to McCray, S. "Good game, Rodney," he said to Milt Wagner. Well, what do you expect from Joe B. (for Befuddled?), a perfect double?
Though both sides downplayed the rivalry and any leftover bitterness, blood had been spilled on the bluegrass. Afterward, as Hall strode down a corridor, seemingly under control, he suddenly pounded his program against the wall, slammed it to the concrete and then kicked it with all his might.
Hall's wife, Katharine, was even more distraught. She grabbed the coat of a Louisville sportswriter who has been feuding with Hall in recent years and viciously chewed him out. "Are you satisfied now?" she demanded. "You've taken one of the finest men on the face of the earth and ruined him with your writing."
It was a scene of embarrassing ugliness, but luckily an uncommon one. The beauty that both teams. Louisville and Kentucky, brought to the occasion remains above all. Time heals every wound. One hopes that it won't take 24 years again.