To help combat March Sadness, this is the first of series of recaps of significant games in Cardinal history, contemporaneously rewatched, said freshly written posts to be presented in the coming weeks as if the games were played the night before. — c d k
U of L’s national title battle with UCLA knotted tight at 54, Darrell Griffith’s signature moment finally arrived Monday night, with 2:21 remaining on the game clock at Market Square Arena.
The moment the City of Louisville has been waiting and hoping for since rumors started circulating just short of a decade ago, about a couple of young teen phenoms at DuValle Junior High.
The moment Cardinal fans have been waiting for since Grif and his runnin’ partner Bobby Turner committed to play for U of L, and this year’s Tournament MVP promised the city a national title.
The moment Darrell Griffith willed to existence through talent and his hard work, especially last summer in sweatbox Crawford Gym, dribbling through traffic cones, and hoisting thousands of jumpshots, to overcome the embarrassment of sitting most of crunch time of the Cards disappointing NCAA elimination last season against Arkansas.
With 5:57 to go, Griffith had kept the Cards within reach, after a 6-0 Bruin run, converting a +1 on an oop from Wiley Brown to pull within 48-50. But the Cards nemesis in their previous two final weekend visits under Denny Crum sandwiched a couple Mike Sanders FTs and a KiKi Vandeweghe layup around a DG jumper to lead 54-50 at the 4:32 mark.
The Bruins did not score again.
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Denny Crum’s signature moment arrived when the buzzer sounded in Indy, and the scoreboard read: Louisville 59, UCLA 54.
The moment the City of Louisville had been waiting and hoping for since a tantalizing appearance in the national semis in ‘59, after beating Kentucky and Michigan State in the Regional.
The moment Cardinal faithful had been longing for since the legendary John Wooden’s former ace assistant took over the reins of the Cards nine seasons back.
The moment Cardinals fans have waiting for since the Red & Black fell to the Bruins in the ‘72 semi-finals, and again in OT in San Diego in ‘75, in what many have called the best played college game ever.
The moment Cardinal fans have wished for since Crum, upset with his star’s play in last season’s Midwest Regional semi against the Razorbacks, benched Griffith with the game still in the balance.
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So, how did Louisville fashion that 9-0 run over the last four and a half for the school’s first national crown?
Defense. Guile. And being up to the moment.
With just over four minutes left, Vandeweghe stole the ball and intended to take it end to end, dunk it, and hand his Bruins what would have been a 6 point advantage, the largest of the game.
But sophomores Jerry Eaves and Wiley Brown didn’t give up on the play, hustling back stride for stride with the senior Bruin star. Instead of trying to block Kiki’s shot, Eaves craftily ran underneath him as a distraction, forcing a mechanics adjustment and miss. Brown was there to secure the board.
Then left open at the other end, Eaves drilled a 16 footer to pull the Cardinals within a deuce. Then the Ballard grad drove the lane, for a layup from his favored southpaw side. 54-54.
It was Game On from thereon.
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Then, after another Bruin misfire, it was Star Time.
Was Grif ready for Star Time?
The Cards hustled toward the offensive end, all but Eaves setting up camp underneath.
Darrell Griffith had the rock. Darrell Griffith was not going to pass the rock. At four fifths speed, he dribbled up the left side. Crossing the midcourt stripe into the front court, he accelerated and cut right to the foul line. Where he stopped, elevated as only he in the college game can, and, in an instant as blissful as any in the history of Cardinal hoops, swished the capper J of his U of L career.
Two FTs by Derek Smith, the first as wobbly-kneed as any ever attempted, the second all net, and one by All-Tournament frosh Rodney McCray, finished the scoring for the crown.
In the future, if you ever hear someone in Cardinal gear utter these numbers in this order — 59 54 — you will not have to guess what they are talking about.
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As glorious as the championship is, the game as contested was not a thing of beauty.
Between the combatants there were 10 blocked shots, 18 pilfered passes and 33 turnovers, 17 by the Cardinals.
Louisville was lucky to be even close at the break. The Cards were a woeful 11/31 from the field, and an anemic 4/9 at the charity stripe. (The Bruins canned all 8 of their FTs in the 1st, were 16/18 on the night.)
A long J by Grif pulled U of L within a deuce right before intermission, the 26-28 disadvantage secured by a McCray block at the halftime buzzer.
After being rimmed out by Crum at the half — “I got on ‘em real hard at halftime. I felt I had to do something to wake them up.” — U of L connected on 13/22 in the 2d (59%), but still missed 5 of 11 freebies.
Griffith tallied 23.
McCray had 7 and 11.
Brown, also a beast on the boards, harvested 7, to go along with his 8 points.
Eaves, scoreless in the opening stanza, ended up with 8 points, 3 assists and a steal. None of which numbers come close to highlighting the importance of that play on Vandeweghe and his two ensuing buckets.
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One of the scribes covering the contest obviously remembered how Griffith’s prior season ended with him on the pine. Postgame, Grif, with one of the nets around his neck, was asked about being taken out with eight or so remaining.
With a remembering smile on his face, the Cardinal star responded matter of factly, “He took me out to give me a breather. It wasn’t for any real reason other than giving me a rest.”
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These are the words I’ve been hoping to write since my first Cardinal game 28 years ago:
The University of Louisville Cardinals are NCAA basketball champions.
— c d kaplan