When the Mideast Regional final was over last Saturday afternoon, Illinois coach Lou Henson wanted to know only one thing: "Did the last basket count?" He was referring to a meaningless tap at the buzzer by the mini's George Montgomery that might have been meaningful indeed if Kentucky's Dicky Beal had been called for traveling with some 16 seconds left in the game—and, in fact, he appeared to have walked. The score then was 52-50 Wildcats. Two seconds later, Beal drew a one-and-one and sank both ends. An Illinois free throw made the final score 54-51.
Told Montgomery's basket hadn't counted, Henson said, "That was a crucial call like all the others. How can we come to Kentucky...and have the fouls be 10-2 [in Kentucky's favor for the second half, until the Cats began wasting fouls in the last few seconds]? You can't win under those conditions."
Of course you can't. The Wildcats win in Lexington about as often as they play there; Kentucky's record in eight years at Rupp is 108-11. But the Illini—and, two nights earlier, Louisville—came as close as is humanly possible. Last week Kentucky coach Joe Beasman Hall kept calling his opponent "Illinoise"; what with some 23,500 people yelling a Kentucky-blue streak, Illinois could have used a little Illinoise.
For their part, the Wildcats faced a different kind of adversity. They had won only two NCAA tournament games in the last three seasons, a span in which many fans had expected three national titles. Four fabulous recruiting classes had produced a 1983-84 team with nine high school All-Americas. Never mind that in the regional the Cats would play three teams they'd beaten by a total of 57 points during the regular season. "If we'd lost," said Kentucky guard Jim Master afterward, "we'd have been criticized for the rest of our lives."
Hall was taking no chances. Seven student managers, each working 2½-hour shifts, instituted round-the-clock surveillance of 257-pound center Melvin Turpin (who'll be the only U.S.-born center in the Final Four), making sure the already overweight Lard of the Rims didn't violate his diet.
Turpin scored Kentucky's first eight points against Illinois, while Quinn Richardson and Doug Altenberger sank jumpers from the wing to keep the Illini close during the second half. But Beal, who would be named the regional's outstanding player, sealed the game in the final minute. He scored the Cats' last four points, wriggling free from an Illinois double-team for a layup, then draining those two free throws after apparently taking an unwhistled extra step.
The Illini overcame foul problems, a notoriously thin bench and height mismatches—as they had all year—to beat Maryland 72-70 in their semifinal. A typical matchup: Richardson, who's 5'11", on 6'5" Keith Gatlin. A typical result: Richardson posting up Gatlin in the lane for a turnaround jumper that gave Illinois its first second-half lead with 19 minutes remaining. Shooting 61% and making just one turnover the rest of the way boosted the Illini, as did what they viewed as a cocky pregame attitude on the part of the Terrapins. "We saw them laughing," Altenberger said. "Maybe they were just staying loose, but it made us work harder."
Like Terp coach Lefty Driesell, Hall has had to live with the image that he's a better recruiter than coach. "I'm a bad coach because I go out and recruit well," he lamented last week. "I could go out and get a bunch of 5'8" kids and go for the Coach of the Year award, but I like to win."
Hall particularly likes beating intrastate rival Louisville, Kentucky's opponent in the other semi. The schools' third meeting in 12 months provided an opportunity for Winston Bennett, the Cats' body-popping, malaproping freshman from Louisville, to call his decision to attend Kentucky "a limestone in my life." Bennett wrapped up a 72-67 victory over the Cardinals with an acrobatic, reverse-tap three-point play off a missed free throw with :13 remaining.
Louisville had played splendidly to that point, with coach Denny Crum directing his team for a stretch while blood trickled from his temple, where a quarter thrown by a fan had struck him. On defense the Cardinals pressed furiously; on offense they gave the ball to their fearless' guards, Lancaster Gordon and Milt Wagner, whom Master had described as looking "out to lunch" during Kentucky's season-opening 65-44 win. But this time Louisville's guards feasted for 47 points—'Caster charbroiled Master for 25 of them—mostly on soft jumpers that never fluttered in the hostile din cascading from Rupp's nether reaches. "If we were playing anywhere else, we probably would've lost," said Kentucky's Kenny Walker. Added Bennett, the Limestone Cowboy, "The crowd here plays a very intrinsic sixth man for us."
Kentucky also won that one thanks to Beal, who had 15 points, nine assists and six steals, the biggest basket coming with 7:51 left and the Cats up 51-49. The Cards had gone into a 1-4 alignment, giving Wagner the ball with just Beal to beat. But Wagner stumbled backing into the lane, and Beal was off for a layup. Rupp has never been louder than it was after that, the crucial basket in a 10-0 run.
Beal's comeback from three arthroscopic incisions of his right knee has been a triumphant drama. Last summer, after the last of those operations, he visited the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga. Beal's squeals of pain were so frightful that Auburn coach Sonny Smith, who was in another room having a tennis injury checked out, figured Beal was lost for the season. "It was gruesome to hear him," Smith says. "I admire the little rascal for coming back."
Even after he regained a starting spot on Feb. 19, Beal had at least one verbal confrontation with Hall in practice and two more injuries, a groin pull and an ankle sprain. But his speed shook Kentucky out of its annual midseason slump. Hall now calls him "the best asset we've got." Adds Sam Bowie, who scored his 11 points in the second half against Illinois, "Dicky puts us in another gear."
Meanwhile, Henson, who would have preferred that they all had been in another building, ripped the NCAA's practice of letting schools host and participate in the same regional. Would Kentucky have won the Mideast in, say, Indianapolis? Said Master, "I guess we'll never know."
With all due respect to their host and conqueror, Illinois and Louisville think they have a notion.