UofL 1985-86 season in review, part I - wave3.com-Louisville News, Weather & Sports

UofL 1985-86 season in review, part I

This college basketball season marks the anniversaries of four memorable championship seasons for local schools: Indiana in 1975-76 & 1980-81; Louisville in 1985-86; and Kentucky in 1995-96. Throughout this season wave3.com will take occasional looks back at those national title seasons for the Hoosiers, Cardinals and Wildcats. 

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Denny Crum won at least 20 games in each of his first 13 seasons as the University of Louisville men’s basketball head coach. 

That streak, however, came to an end in the 1984-85 campaign, when UofL finished 19-18. 

It was an injury-plagued season for the Cardinals. Highly-touted freshman guard Kevin Walls missed all of the year with a knee injury while several others were bothered by not-so-serious, but nagging injuries. They included junior guard Jeff Hall (dislocated tibia in his knee joint), sophomore forward Mark McSwain (stress fracture), sophomore center Barry Sumpter (shin splints) and senior forward Manuel Forrest (Achilles tendon problem). 

However none of those injuries was bigger than the broken foot that starting point guard Milt Wagner suffered in UofL's second game. It would sideline him for the entire season. 

Without Wagner, UofL’s leading scorer the previous two seasons, the team struggled. Although they started 6-1 the Cards lost three in a row in late December, dropped five of six games in mid- to late-January and then closed the regular season by losing three of four to finish 15-15. Louisville then went 1-1 in the Metro Conference Tournament, which was held at Freedom Hall, and failed to receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1975-76 season. The Cards, however, did accept an invite to the NIT. They won their first three games (including one played at Broadbent Arena) of the not-good-enough-for-the-NCAA tourney, but lost to Reggie Miller and UCLA in the NIT semifinals and Tennessee in the third-place game. 

Even though it was a season full of struggles several Louisville players gained valuable experience. Foremost among those was junior forward Billy Thompson (15.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg). The former consensus top-rated player in the Class of 1982 hadn’t quite lived up to the high school hype in his first two seasons. But without Wagner the 6-foot-7 Thompson was forced to play a larger role, as well some two-guard for the Cards, as he increased his points per game by 5.9 and rebounds per game by 2.8. However Billy T. wasn’t the only one to increase his production. 

Hall went from 8.3 ppg to 12.1 and McSwain from 3 ppg and 2.2 rpg to 8.4 ppg and 5.3 rpg. Meanwhile freshmen Herbert Crook (5.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) and Mike Abram (3.7 ppg) also got some quality playing time for short-handed UofL.  

After the '84-85 season, however, the Cards lost two starters: Forrest (12.8 ppg), who used up his eligibility, and Sumpter (8.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who was academically ineligible. 

Help was on the way, though. 

Crum and his coaching staff were bringing in a highly-regarded freshman class in the fall of 1985. It included Seneca High School product Tony Kimbro; Kenny Payne, a forward from Laurel, Miss.; and a 6-9 center from Savannah, Ga. with a funny-sounding first name, Pervis Ellison. 

With the return of a healthy Wagner, as well as Thompson, Hall, McSwain, and a big-time recruiting class the Cards figured to be one of the top teams in the country in the 1985-86 season. 

Preseason NIT tests Cards early 

On Nov. 22, 1985, one day after President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrapped up a two-day summit in Geneva, Switzerland, UofL opened its 1985-86 campaign. 

The Cardinals, who were ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press preseason poll, began the season in Cincinnati against Miami (Ohio) in their first game of the inaugural Big Apple Preseason NIT. 

Louisville outlasted the then-nicknamed-Redskins 81-65. Billy T. led the way, with a near triple-double (19 points, a career-high 17 rebounds, seven assists), to offset a 36-point performance by Miami star Ron Harper, who was later Michael Jordan's backcourt mate in the NBA. 

Crook contributed 15 points while Ellison added 11 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots in his debut. 

“I was a little bit nervous at the start,” Ellison, without a touch of irony or foreshadowing, told The Courier-Journal afterward. 

Meanwhile in his first official game since breaking his foot, Wagner had nine points on abysmal 3-for-16 shooting. 

Two days later UofL moved to 2-0 with an 80-74 triumph over pesky Tulsa in Cincy. Thompson again led the way with an across-the-board stat line of 21 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Meanwhile Hall added 15 and Wagner 14 while Ellison tallied 13 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds. That balanced attack helped overcome 58.3 percent shooting by the Golden Hurricane. 

The Tulsa victory earned the Cards a trip to New York City and the Big Apple semifinals. Joining them there would be No. 5 Kansas, No. 6 Duke and No. 18 St. John's. It was a foursome worthy of an NCAA Final Four, and in fact three of the four would eventually end up at Reunion Arena in late March. 

On Nov. 29 the Cards faced the Jayhawks in the second NIT semifinal (Duke beat St. John's 71-70 in the first semi). Larry Brown’s team was an experienced one with three seniors, one junior and one sophomore in the starting lineup. That sophomore was Danny Manning, a 6-11 forward who would go on to become the No. 1 pick in the 1988 NBA Draft.

As it turned out, though, Manning wouldn't be much of a factor in Kansas' 83-78 win over Louisville. Guard Calving Thompson tallied 25 points and forward Ron Kellogg added 20 for the Jayhawks, who shot 56.1 percent from the field as they regularly beat UofL’s press for easy baskets. Billy T. again stuffed the stat sheet with 18, eight and seven while Ellison added 18 points and five boards. Wagner, however, continued to struggle shooting the basketball. He was just 2 for 15 from the field. 

Two days later Wagner and UofL got a chance for redemption against the Redmen in the third-place game. 

St. John's was coming off a banner season that ended with a loss to Georgetown in the Final Four. Star forward Chris Mullin and center Bill Wennington had graduated, but the Redmen still returned three starters - forwards Walter Berry and Willie Glass and point guard Mark Jackson.  

Led by 22 points from Berry, who was just beginning a national player of the year campaign, St. John's clipped the Cards 86-79. Guard Ron Rowan chipped in with 20 points while Jackson added 17 points and 11 assists for the Redmen, who shot 54.5 percent from the field, and like Kansas, got plenty of easy hoops against the Cards' press. 

Wagner, who was a not-too-bad 6 for 13 from the field, and Ellison led Louisville with 16 points apiece while Thompson tallied 15, seven and six for UofL, which didn't come through in the clutch.   

“We have good ability, but we make way too many mistakes in crucial situations late,” Crum told the C-J afterward. “We were competitive with that team. I think we’ve got a chance to become a lot better because of the young kids we’re playing.” 

Bouncing back from the Big Apple

On Dec. 7, six days after their loss to St. John's, the Cardinals rebounded with a 77-58 triumph over Purdue at Freedom Hall. Thompson led the way with 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists while Wagner and Kimbro tallied 10 each. After being disappointed with his team’s defense in the previous two games, Crum shuffled players in and out (using all 15 in uniform) trying to find those who played hard and hustled.  

Walls saw his first extended action of the season, scoring seven points and dishing out two assists in 17 minutes. He was at the helm when UofL went on a 13-5 second half run to take control.

Louisville followed that up three days later with an 88-75 win over visiting Iona. 

UofL led just 32-30 at halftime, but shot 66.7 percent in the second half - thanks to 13 layups or dunks - to win easily.  

“At halftime I told somebody to get the cops and let’s get on the bus and get the hell out of here,” Iona, and future Florida State, coach Pat Kennedy was quoted by the C-J as saying. 

Ellison had his best game, with 19 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, five blocks and three steals. 

UofL shot 61.9 percent for the game, but was just 10 for 21 from the free throw line (Thompson was 0 for 6). 

“We’re a long way from perfect. I don’t claim we’re even close,” Crum told the C-J. “Right now we’re an average team, but if we learn…”

After the game Kennedy compared UofL to then-No. 1 North Carolina, which had blasted Iona 110-67 earlier in the season. 

“When North Carolina gets going, they’re like a locomotive. You can’t stop them,” he said. “Louisville has the same potential. I think the thing they need right now is to get their guards shooting in the groove. They’ve got to find each other better in more open position.”

UofL would get its chance to prove itself against the Tar Heels later in the season, but Western Kentucky was next up. 

The Hilltoppers hadn't beaten the Cards since 1961, but they nearly did Dec. 14 at Freedom Hall. Western led 45-34 at halftime and 48-36 early in the second half before UofL rallied for a 73-70 win. 

Crook scored a career-high 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds while Wagner added 14 points and Hall 12. Thompson finished with a double-double (10 and 10). That balance helped Louisville overcome a 28-point game by Hilltoppers guard Billy Gordon, the younger brother of former UofL standout Lancaster Gordon.

WKU shot 65.2 percent in the first half, but dropped to 46.2 in the second. The Cards, meanwhile, missed 11 of their last 12 shots but made 14 straight free throws - including two by Wagner with 18 seconds left - down the stretch. 

Four days later Louisville held off No. 17 Indiana for a 65-63 win at Freedom Hall. Wagner finally seemed to shake off the rust (he entered shooting 32.6 percent from the field), scoring 22 points, including 18 points in the second half. He scored 16 of UofL’s final 21 points and all of the Cards’ final 10, including two free throws with 10 seconds left. 

Wagner's big game help combat a game-high 27 points by Hoosier hero Steve Alford.  

Behind Alford, IU led 34-32 at halftime. UofL, though, took the lead for good (48-47) on Wagner’s jumper with 9:21 left. However the Cards could never shake the Hoosiers. 

Alford hit a 22-footer with 15 seconds left to make it 62-61 before Stew Robinson fouled Wagner on UofL’s ensuing possession. 

“I want to be on the line in a situation like that,” Wagner told the C-J. “I’m a money player and I like to be under pressure because I feel like I can get the job done when we need it.” 

Alford hit a jumper, then called a TO, but IU was out of them so it was a technical foul. Wagner then hit one free throw with 1 second left to account for the final margin. 

IU shot 51.1 percent, including 59.1 percent in the first half, while UofL shot 50 percent. Wagner was 7 for 12 from the field and Ellison was 5 for 7. However, Hall was 2 for 8 and Thompson was 3 for 9. Both finished with seven points. Alford finished 11 for 16 from the field and 5 of 6 from the foul line. 

The Dream Game, and the end of the pre-conference slate

Three days after Christmas the then-15th-ranked Cards traveled to Lexington to take on No. 13 Kentucky. Thanks to a decided advantage on the backboards and a big game by Louisville native Winston Bennett, the smaller Wildcats clipped the Cards 69-64 in front of 24,180 at Rupp Arena. 

UK crushed UofL 36-24 on the boards, including 20-5 on the offensive end. 

"Every ball seemed to bounce in the right spot for them," Crum was quoted as saying by the C-J. "But good hustle will create that for you. They went to the boards hard and we obviously did a lousy job of screening off. Any time you get 20 offensive rebounds to your opponents' five, you've got a heck of an edge." 

Bennett, a Male High School graduate, had a game-high 23 points (well above his 10.6 ppg average) and seven rebounds (all offensive) to lead Kentucky while future All-American Kenny Walker had 11 points and 14 rebounds. 

Wagner led Louisville with 19 on 9 of 13 shooting for the Cards, who shot 58 percent. Meanwhile the Eddie Sutton-led Wildcats shot just 41.7 percent, but hit 19 of 25 free throws to the Cards' 6 of 7. 

"Every time we got close they went to the free throw line," Crum said. "But that's the way it is on the road. You have to play a whole lot better than the other team to win, you can't just play as good."

Crook added 14 and Ellison 13 while Thompson only had eight points (and eight rebounds) to go along with four fouls and four turnovers in 33 minutes. 

Seven days later the Cards began 1986 with a 94-62 rout of Wyoming thanks to a career-high 30 points by Thompson. Thompson, who entered averaging 13.9 ppg, was 13 for 14 from the field and 4 of 5 from the free throw line. He also had seven rebounds and three assists. Wagner added 16 points, Crook 13 and Payne tallied 12. 

“Every one of them looked like they might have a Superman insignia under their uniform,” Wyoming coach Jim Brandenburg was quoted as saying by the C-J after the game. 

Even Robbie Valentine got into the act, hitting a 25-footer late in the game. 

"I’m a great shooter from out there. Don’t leave Robbie open from 25 feet,” Valentine, referring to himself in the third person, told the C-J afterward.  

Fennis Dembo, who would be on the cover of Sports Illustrated in November of 1987 dressed as a cowboy when the Cowboys were preseason No. 1, tallied 23 points. 

Two days later Louisville lambasted Eastern Kentucky 86-55. 

Thompson had another big game with 19 points (to lead five in double figures), five rebounds and seven assists. Wagner added 17 points, Payne 15, Kimbro 11 and Crook 10, including his first career dunk (one of seven by the Cards). 

Ellison left the game with 11:14 left in the first half with a strained groin muscle. He didn’t return, but it didn't matter. UofL shot 56.7 percent from the field, including 61.3 percent in the second half. 

The Cards were 8-3 and ranked 17th nationally as they prepared for their Metro Conference opener Jan. 9 against mighty Memphis State, which was unbeaten (13-0) and ranked No. 6 in the country. 

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