Louisville CardFile: Kentucky

To help combat March Sadness, this is the second of series of recaps of significant games in Cardinal history, contemporaneously rewatched, said freshly minted posts to be presented in the coming weeks as if the games were played the night before. — c d k

Four days short of three years to the date, I’ve got an answer for you, Wayne Duke.

“Absolutely. The Cards most certainly are now.”

Checking out of our hotel in Indy that magical morning after the Cards conquered UCLA for the ’80 NCAA title, my gang was bantering with the Big Ten commissioner.

“Sure, you’re #1 in the country,” he kidded with an understanding of the lay of the land in the Dark and Bloody Ground of the Commonwealth, “but will you be #1 when you get back home in Kentucky?”

“Well, Wayne, there’s no question today.”

In a packed, intense and loud Stokely Athletic Center yesterday in Knoxville, the Louisville Cardinals, second fiddle in the minds of Big Blue fans for decades, heck forever, moved the b-ball capitol of the commonwealth 75 miles west from the Lexington to Louisville.

In a game that needed five extra minutes — Of course, it did — the Cardinals chewed the Cats up with pressure D, then spit ’em out with 12-0 explosion to start the overtime, which was a rapturous interlude for the U of L faithful.

Louisville 80, Kentucky 68.

May I repeat that? Yes, yes, I can.

Louisville 80, Kentucky 68.

Be still my beating heart.

 * * * * *

Before getting to the details of the battle, allow me to pose a phenomenological question that most Louisville faithful shall be debating for years to come.

Sure there’s the matter of #1 Phil Slamma Jamma next week in the national semi-finals, and how the rest of the season will play out, but, long term, here’s the debate.

Which was bigger, which was more important, winning that title three years ago, or beating Kentucky in this dream of a game?

It’s way too early to say, and I hope the Cards are cutting down the nets next weekend in Albuquerque, but Saturday afternoon was dang sweet. The word “definitive” comes to mind.

I’m not sure any of us who were in the gym will ever forget the glory of what I predict will come to be known among the fans simply as “Knoxville.”

 * * * * *

But, you know, it’s not like Louisville had the game in hand from the start.

In the opening half, the Wildcats got the ball to the hoop with surprising ease. With surprising ease, the Cats were finding the bucket. The Cards were not.

At a stoppage of play with Kentucky up thirteen at 23-10, U of L had connected on but 4 of its 14 FG attempts. While UK had netted 11/17.

In Vol Country, U of L, off its feed, had the rocky topiest of beginnings.

Even though ever steady Rodney McCray eventually tallied on three consecutive Card possessions, the game remained a back and forth struggle. Louisville could never make any significant headway, even after Rodney found brother Scooter for a +1 to pull U of L within eight at 21-29.

Consecutive scores by Dirk Minniefield and Bret Bearup pushed the Cats back up by a dozen.

But the Cards pulled within 7 at the break, 30-37, thanks to Lancaster Gordon’s two FTs, a Rodney McCray follow, and UK sitting on the ball for well over a minute before missing a J on the last possession.

The Cardinals warmed up a bit before intermission, heading to the locker room at 12/29 (41%). But that was still six less FGs than UK, who drilled 18/29 (62%). The Cardinal guards were a woeful 3/11 in the opening 20.

 * * * * *

The early moments of the 2d were similarly less than scintillating for Louisville.

After the first five possessions of each team, Kentucky had added a deuce to its advantage.

Then U of L’s vaunted press started to work. Denny Crum extended the pressure, obviously advising his charges it was time to tighten the vice. Clamped up, they did.

A Milt Wagner deuce pulled U of L back within 7 at 36-43. Though Louisville couldn’t convert on UK’s first of 4 turnovers in its next five possessions, it was Game On!

What ensued was an 8-0 Louisville run. A deuce, a Rodney follow, a Scooter jumper and a Gordon slam on an alley oop, pulled U of L within a penny at 44-45. After one of several of Scooter’s significant steals, a Gordon deuce gave U of L its first advantage at 50-49.

Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. A Gordon slam, followed by his jumper, followed by a Billy Thompson deuce and Louisville had a  58-53 lead with about 7:00 to play.

Kentucky was getting increasingly exhausted from the Cardinal pressure, but didn’t fold. Wildcat Charles Hurt knotted the classic at 60 with just over 3:00 left in regulation.

Louisville turned it over. Kentucky used up two timeouts and put it in the freezer for seemingly forever, eating up almost two minutes of clock. At the end of which possession, Dirk Minniefield, drove to the hoops, where, challenged mightily by leaping Charles Jones, had his shot blocked. It was a missed a layup that, one supposes, shall go down in UK basketball ignominy.

Gordon immediately nailed a deuce.

Which was followed by JIm Master sending the game to OT at 63 all, swishing his fifth FG of the 2d in 5 attempts, this time defeating Jones’s attempted block.

As that shot rippled through the net, I was disappointed but crestfallen for only a nanosecond.

“This is the way it should be,” I thought, “overtime, could it have been any other way?”

 * * * * *

And oh how very very sweet that extra five minutes proved to be.

U of L secured the opening tip, held it for a bit over a minute until Caster hit a deuce. 64-62.

Gordon steal. Gordon score 66-62.

Scooter steal from behind. Charles Jones two FTs. 68-62.

Forced turnover. Scooter to Milt Wagner for a bunny. 70-62.

At which point, the Cardinal fans had reached warp delirium.

I kept expecting Alice to tap me on the shoulder, wish me a very merry unbirthday, and advise I was in Wonderland.

A block by McCray the Elder. Milt Wagner two FTs. 72-62.

A block by Jones, then Gordon found Milt on a breakaway. 74-62.

Is this real, really happening, I wondered?

After yet another forced Wildcat giveaway — this time it was Rodney with the pilfer — Wagner hit two more FTs. 76-62 for a fourteen point lead with just :42 to play.

UK still hadn’t scored in OT.

The rest is a blur, I must be honest. I know Kentucky scored a couple of meaningless buckets. And the Cards had another breakaway slam or two. Gordon, maybe? Wagner? Both.

What I do remember is this, an image I’ll never forget.

Stoic, implacable Rodney McCray standing on the bench with the seconds winding down, leading the roaring crowd in C A R D S.

His stats, just for the record. 15 points on 7/7 shooting from the field. 8 rebounds. 2 blocks. 2 assists. A steal. Plus a sloppy but acceptable S during his cheerleading.

Those Cardinal guards, who couldn’t find the hoop in the 1st, were 15/20 (75%) for the last 25. Caster finished with a team high 24, Wagner with 18.

U of L as a team connected on 16 of 21 FGs in the 2d, for a stunning 76%. Then hit everything they shot — literally — during the extra five.

Scooter finished with 7 and 7. Jones had 12 and 7.

 * * * * *

Despite the withering separation U of L foisted upon UK during that final five, the first 40 of regulation was a battle of titanic proportions. Kentucky dominated early, leading by as many as 13 in the 1st.

But Cards sometimes slowly, sometimes swiftly caught and passed the Cats for a five point advantage late. But, over the remaining 7:45, the Wildcats outfought the Cardinals, 9-4, to force OT.

During which additional session, U of L was P.E.R.F.E.C.T.

Louisville took 6 shots in OT. Louisville made 6 shots in OT.

Louisville attempted 6 FTs in OT. Louisville connected on 6 FTs in OT.

The Cards forced, oh, I don’t remember how many turnovers in what shall go down as the Greatest Five Minutes in Cardinal Hoops History.

 * * * * *

OK, there’s one other image from Saturday I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

The cheer squads of the two schools arm in arm before the game, leading the crowd in “My Old Kentucky Home.”

The rendition of that tune before the Run for the Roses. Fuhgettaboutit, it’s now #2.

 * * * * *

So, yeah, Wayne Duke, one last thing.

Did you see that sign the regional’s Most Outstanding Player Lancaster Gordon was holding when he and Rodney were snipping down the net?


— c d kaplan


3 thoughts on “Louisville CardFile: Kentucky

  1. Seedy, thanks so much for letting me relive that day! Wife and I were in Stokely on that most momentous occasion. Atmosphere was tension filled. I was moved by the cheerleaders locking arms for My Old Kentucky Home. I remember sensing that fan bases from both schools had a mutual respect for one another, a sensation I had never had. Maybe I was delusional.
    I’ve been to 4 Final 4s and many conference and NCAA tournament games. That 5 minutes in OT will always be my favorite, although the Michigan win in Atlanta in 2013 finishes a close second!

  2. The battle against Arkansas with( Scooter?Rodney?) tip in with zero on the clock, was also one of our better victories.
    Love your going back in time to recall some great games. Looking forward to Dallas ’86 and then maybe some Memphis State games.I thought basketball was over then then then along came CK.

    1. Thanks for kind words, Bob. And you are correct about Arkansas game, a nailbiter won at the buzzer. True relief. And exhilaration.

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