Some people expected last Saturday's West Regional final between Louisville and Auburn to be a grand anticlimax. Hadn't the Cardinals already won the West, if not the entire tournament, on Thursday night when they took out North Carolina in a stunning 94-79 semifinal showdown? CBS-TV's Brent Musburger said as much when he told Auburn coach Sonny Smith—on the air—that practically nobody gave the Tigers a chance to cage the Cardinals.
Well, nobody discourages Smith that easily. A year ago, after he had announced his resignation in February, Smith led the Tigers to the tournament's Round of 16. So Smith unresigned and this time took his team one round further.
Yes, Louisville earned its trip to Dallas, but the Cards' 84-76 victory over Auburn was anything but a cakewalk. The pace was so furious—"I thought both teams would score 100," said guard Jeff Hall—that a cadre of Louisville fans, including Lavinia Swain, the wife of university president Donald C. Swain, left the stands and paced the lobby, too rattled to watch the game's final minutes. The nervous Nellies could relax only after freshman center Pervis (Never Nervous) Ellison batted Jeff Moore's shot to Hall, who streaked for a breakaway layup, which gave Louisville a 75-70 lead with 1:52 to play. "When I saw that block," said forward Billy Thompson, "I knew the momentum had shifted."
Afterward, a chant of "We want Kentucky! We want Kentucky!" reverberated through the Louisville crowd. It didn't matter that the hated Wildcats were about to get knocked off in Atlanta and that LSU would be the Cards' semifinal opponent in Dallas. "Whoever we play," said Thompson, "they'd better get to work. It's time for us to win."
Judging from its performance in Houston's Summit, Louisville appears to be poised for a spree in Big D. The Cards' murderous early-season schedule might have gotten them off to an 11-6 start, but it also strengthened them for their rousing finish: 19 wins in 20 games. In the victories over North Carolina and Auburn, all five Louisville starters scored in double figures. They were deadly from the free-throw line (44 of 53) and came up big on the boards. Louisville even had a 37-27 rebound edge over the Tigers, the SEC wide-bodies who outrebounded 25 of their 32 opponents this season. "It wasn't a matter of who had the best offense but who got the rebounds," said Auburn forward Chuck Person, who scored 23 points and was named the region's most outstanding player. "I figured we would need an eight-or nine-rebound advantage, but they outrebounded us by 10. I didn't think anyone could do that."
Auburn had reached the final by rallying from a sluggish first half to whip Nevada-Las Vegas 70-63 on Thursday. The Runnin' Rebels had come out smoking, with forward Armon (Hammer) Gilliam working over the Tigers' front line and Anthony Jones and Fred (Skeleton) Banks bombing from the wings. But in the second half the Rebels were runnin' on empty. "Our legs just gave out," said Jones. Little wonder. UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian had given aid to the enemy by putting his Rebels through two practices—a total of four hours—on Tuesday, then two more one-hour sessions on Wednesday. Person, who had hit just four of 11 from the field in the first half against the Vegas zone, struck for 17 of his 25 points and nine of his 11 rebounds after intermission. Afterward, Tarkanian could be seen pacing the Summit's corridors, bemoaning his fate with North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who already had had problems that evening and soon would have more.
Because he lacked the proper ID, Smith had been detained at the Summit press gate before the game by Charli Dilbeck, a secretary in the University of Houston's sports information office. "But I've got a game," Smith protested to the woman. "I'm Dean Smith, the North Carolina coach."
"We've had three guys claim to be Dean Smith today," said Dilbeck, who before Thursday didn't know Dean Smith from Adam Smith. "He wasn't nasty about it," Dilbeck said later. "He just walked on through. Later I saw him on the TV, and I felt horrible."
But she could not have felt worse than Smith after Carolina's 94-79 loss to Louisville in the semis. After clawing back from a 59-47 second-half deficit to lead 75-73 with 4:31 left, the Heels came unglued. Louisville hit 15 of 16 free throws down the stretch—forward Herb Crook was 10 for 10—and its suffocating defensive pressure held the Heels to two field goals for the rest of the game. For the fourth consecutive year North Carolina, which had been 25-1 and ranked No. 1 as late as Feb. 19, failed to reach the Final Four despite lofty expectations.
Louisville senior Thompson has been to one Final Four—1983, when the Cards fell to Houston in the semifinal. "Getting to the Final Four is like a job," he said. But he seemed to enjoy his work on Saturday. As he was about to leave the locker room, he could scarcely contain his excitement. "Milton!" he exclaimed to Milt Wagner, his fellow senior and Camden, N.J. soul mate. "We're going to the Final Four!" "Yeah," said Wagner, with a little less exuberance. Clearly he was saving his excitement for when the Cards win it all.
"Once we win it, we'll have the biggest celebration you ever saw," he said. Big enough, maybe, to impress even Big D.