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) - The 1985-86 University of Louisville men’s basketball team rode into Dallas for the Final Four riding a 15-game winning streak.
Like most of Denny Crum’s teams in the first half of the decade, the Cardinals were peaking in March.
Second-seeded UofL (30-7), making its fourth Final Four appearance of the 1980s, would be joined at Reunion Arena by No. 1 seeds Kansas (35-3) and Duke (36-2) and one very unlikely team, 11th-seeded LSU (25-12). The Tigers had kept a Final Four Dream Game from happening (fans would have to wait another 26 years for that) by upsetting No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Southeast Regional final.
It had been a crazy season for Dale Brown’s team. The Tigers, who were No. 14 in the Associated Press preseason poll, won their first 14 games as they rose to as high as No. 8 before hitting the skids. LSU, whose season included a chicken pox outbreak (the team was quarantined for a week), lost 11 of its next 19 games. Still the Tigers managed to sneak into the NCAA Tournament, and somehow were placed in the Southeast Regional, where they’d play the first two rounds on their homecourt. That seemed to spark Brown’s rag-tag team. LSU upset sixth-seeded Purdue in double overtime in the first round, then beat third-seeded Memphis State, 83-81, on a last-second shot in the second round. After that it was on to Atlanta, where the Tigers knocked off second-seeded Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16, then edged the top-seeded Wildcats, who had already beaten LSU three times, 59-57 in the regional final.
The other semifinal would pit the No. 1 Blue Devils against the No. 2 Jayhawks, two teams that were a combined 71-5.
Kansas, which had beaten Louisville twice during the regular season, was the Big 8 regular-season and tourney champs. The Jayhawks had an experienced squad, but their best player was sophomore forward Danny Manning. Kansas won its first two games in the Midwest Regional by 25 and 22 points, respectively, before outlasting Michigan State 96-86 in a wild overtime game in the Sweet 16. The Jayhawks then topped sixth-seeded N.C. State (the team that had handed Louisville its last loss) 75-67 in the regional final behind 22 points from Manning.
Duke, meanwhile, was coming off Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tourney titles. The Blue Devils had rolled through the East Regional, winning their four games by an average of 15.8 points per game. They had beaten seventh-seeded Navy, and its star center David Robinson, 71-50 in the regional final. Duke was making its fifth Final Four appearance, but its first under the coach with the funny last name - Mike Krzyzewski, an understudy of Indiana coach Bob Knight. The Blue Devils, who were led by All-American senior guard Johnny Dawkins, arrived in Dallas riding a 20-game win streak.
The Cards and Tigers played the first semifinal on March 29.
The first half was back and forth. The game was tied at 33-all with six minutes left before LSU closed out the first half with an 11-3 run to take a 44-36 lead into the locker room at halftime. The Tigers had somewhat confused UofL with its “freak defense” (a combination of zone and man-to-man), which had stymied foes during their Final Four run.
“We played so over our heads in the first half, we thought we were the Boston Celtics,” LSU coach Dale Brown, whose team had shot 57 percent in the first half, was quoted as saying afterward.
The pace of the game, however, favored the deeper Cards.
“Being down eight points at halftime is always a concern, but I didn’t think we could play much worse and I didn’t think they could play much better,” Crum said on the 1986 NCAA’s Final Four highlight film. “And I told them, we just had to tighten up. Eight points is only a matter of a two- or three-minute span, and I said, ‘It’s just a question of us putting more pressure on them defensively, taking away a few of the things they want to do and then doing a little better job of execution on our own part.’”
Louisville took control with a 17-1 run early in the second half thanks to its full-court press, as the Cards went from six down (54-48) to 10 up (65-55). During that stretch LSU missed 11 straight shots from the field.
The Tigers wouldn't go away easily. The trimmed UofL's lead to four three times after that, but each time the Cards answered with inside baskets by freshman center Pervis Ellison, senior forward Billy Thompson and sophomore forward Herbert Crook, respectively. LSU wouldn't get closer the rest of the way.
Final score: Louisville 88, LSU 77. The Cards had outscored the Tigers 52-33 in the second half.
The seniors led the way for Louisville as both Thompson and point guard Milt Wagner finished with double-doubles. Thompson, who missed just one of his 11 shots from the field, totaled 22 points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
“Billy Thompson has gone from one of the most overrated freshmen to one of the most underrated seniors,” Brent Musburger, who was doing the telecast with Billy Packer on CBS, said during the semifinal game.
Meanwhile Wagner, who was 8 for 16 from the field and 6 of 6 from the free throw line, tallied 22 points, 11 assists and four rebounds.
Ellison also finished with a double-double (11 points, 13 rebounds) while Crook narrowly missed one (16 points, nine rebounds). Senior guard Jeff Hall added 14 points for the Cards, who shot 55.9 percent (38 for 68) from the field.
Don Redden tallied 22 points to pace four in double digits for the Tigers, who cooled off considerably in the second half on their way to 45.3 percent (34 for 75) shooting in the game. Derrick Taylor added 16 points, while Anthony Wilson scored 15. Sophomore forward John Williams totaled 14 points, nine rebounds and six assists. However the Tigers’ lone big man only tallied two points in the second half due to Louisville’s defense and foul trouble.
In the nightcap, Dawkins’ 24 points and freshman Danny Ferry’s tiebreaking putback with 22 seconds left lifted Duke to a 71-67 win over Kansas in the battle of No. 1 seeds.
Louisville goes for title No. 2
Two nights later, on March 31, the seventh-ranked Cards faced the No. 1 Blue Devils for the national championship.
Duke, which just three years before had finished 11-17, had been ranked No. 6 in the AP preseason poll and didn’t drop lower than that all season. The Blue Devils won their first 16 games before back-to-back losses at then-No. 1 North Carolina (95-92) and at then-No. 4 Georgia Tech (87-80) in mid-January. They entered the title tilt riding a 21-game win streak.
Before the championship game Krzyzewski had Knight address his team. Whatever the “General” said must have inspired Dawkins, because he came out on fire, hitting five of his first six shots. Dawkins scored 11 points (while Wagner and Hall had none) in the first five minutes to boost the Blue Devils to an early 15-8 lead.
The Cards’ guards had trouble containing the quickness of Dawkins and Duke junior point guard Tommy Amaker. Crum tried several different players on Dawkins early, but none had success.
On the other end, though, the Blue Devils had no answer for Ellison. Duke senior center Jay Bilas, when he had hair and long before he was an ESPN demigod, tried his best, but he was no match for the precocious freshman.
The Blue Devils led by eight (31-23) late in the first half, but UofL went on a 10-2 to tie the game. Ellison had six points in that spurt, including a steal and breakaway dunk to knot it at 33.
Still Duke scored four of the final five points - two on a jumper by Dawkins with 4 seconds left - of the half to lead 37-34 at intermission. Dawkins finished with 15 first-half points as the Blue Devils’ backcourt outscored their Cards counterparts 21-4 in the first 20 minutes. Ellison kept UofL close, though, with 12 points.
The early part of the second half was back-and-forth. Duke senior forward Mark Alarie hit a jumper to boost the Blue Devils’ lead to five, but the Cards started going inside. They scored on their first four possessions of the second half, taking a 42-41 lead when Crook tipped in his own miss.
Dawkins responded with seven straight points - on a three-point play, a runner off glass and a jumper - to give Duke a six-point (48-42) advantage.
The Cards cut it to two twice after that, but they were down four when Thompson picked up his fourth foul with 12:30 to play. Eleven seconds later Wagner picked up his fourth as well. Even with those two on the bench UofL stayed close, pulling within one (56-55) after reserve Mark McSwain followed up Ellison’s three-point play with an inside hoop.
Dave Henderson’s basket with a little more than seven minutes left gave Duke a 61-55 lead. That however, would be the Blue Devils’ last field goal until the final seconds.
Their collective cold shooting opened the door for UofL. The Cards scored nine of the game’s next 11 points, taking a 64-63 lead on Wagner’s layup with a little more than three minutes left. Dawkins hit a pair of free throws on Duke’s ensuing possession, but Thompson’s jumper put Louisville on top for good, 66-65, with 2:48 to play.
On the Blue Devils’ ensuing possession Henderson missed a jumper and Alarie missed a tip. The Cards committed a turnover on their next possession, but Duke’s drought continued. Henderson and Dawkins missed 15-foot baseline jumpers before Crook rebounded to set the stage for the biggest possession of the game.
After a timeout with 48 seconds left, and 11 seconds left on the shot clock, Thompson in-bounded the ball to Hall. The senior out of Ashland dribbled to his left and launched a fall-away 15-footer from the left side of the key. The shot never hit the rim, but it didn’t hit the ground.
Ellison grabbed the basketball out of the air, touched the ground for a second, then went right back up with a shot that put UofL on top 68-65 with 41 seconds left.
“We was going into a 1-4 (offensive set) and if Jeff or Milt had the ball we was going to let them go one-on-one. I looked up and I saw that the shot was falling short and I got a head-start on everybody else and I just tipped it in,” Ellison told Musburger after the game.
Henderson, who finished just 5 of 15 from the field, missed again and Alarie fouled Ellison on the rebound. "Never Nervous" Pervis showed no nerves, hitting two free throws with 27 seconds left.
On Duke’s ensuing possession Amaker missed, but Bilas put in the rebound. The Blue Devils’ first field goal in more than seven minutes made it 70-67 with 18 seconds left.
Duke fouled Thompson with 15 seconds left, but the senior missed the front end of a one-and-one. Amaker dribbled down and missed, but after several tips Ferry put it in with three seconds left. After a timeout Thompson in-bounded to Wagner. “Ice” calmly sank both with two seconds left.
Ellison, who became the first freshman in 42 years to win Most Outstanding Player, finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds. He was 10 for 14 from the field and 5 of 6 from the free throw line. Thompson added 13 points while Crook contributed 10 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. Wagner only had nine points, but he was 5 for 5 from the free throw line.
Tony Kimbro scored six and McSwain had five off the Louisville bench. The Cards shot 58 percent (29 for 50) from the field and they outrebounded the Blue Devils 38-23.
Dawkins finished with 24 points on 10 of 19 shooting. Henderson tallied 14 while Alarie added 12 and Amaker totaled 11 points, seven assists and seven steals. Meanwhile Bilas had as many fouls as points (four) and Ferry, who infamously clotheslined Hall after the final horn, finished with four points as well.
“When the chips was down and we needed to pull it out and play hard, we did as a team. We’ve done it that way all year,” Thompson told Musburger after the game. “I’m just glad we could do it at the end of the game.”
Louisville’s second national title, along with its fourth Final Four, of the decade allowed the Cards to lay claim to being the “Team of the 80s.”
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