Louisville thinks of itself as a gentle southern city just below the drawl line, and if once a year it gallops into a dither over a horse race called the Derby, it soon quiets down again into its normal sippin'-whisky frame of mind. Thus it came as all the more of a civic shock last week, a full month before The Horse Race, that Louisville should find itself the center of a frenzy that matched the Derby at its wildest. Into town had come 700 coaches, 200 newsmen and half the population of Ohio to see two furious basketball teams that were bent on settling a national championship and their own civil war in what would long be remembered as the great grudge match of Louisville. By Thursday there wasn't a hotel room available within 40 miles. By Friday, tickets were selling for $100 apiece. And by Saturday at dinnertime the last of the verbal battles were raging from the Bluegrass Room to the Julep Lounge, from Gordon's Golden Horse to the Bit 'n Spur, and even in that rare unequine setting, the Boom Boom Room, as to which team was going to win the national title: defending champion Cincinnati
or its hated foe, the squad that has been ranked No. 1 for two straight seasons, Ohio State? By 11 p.m. that night every argument was settled. Cincinnati, with its matchless defense and a center as tall, solid and imposing as the Washington Monument, had thrashed Ohio State 71-59.
The Bearcats had taken up the challenge that their win over Ohio State in last years's NCAA finals was a fluke. They proved that it was not. They had used college basketball's best defense to once again stop its best offense, as well as the great player who made that offense work, Jerry Lucas. "We're No. 1! We're No. 1!" shouted the Bearcats' joyous backers as the final seconds of the game ran out, and there wasn't a doubt last Saturday night that they were. But it hadn't been easy. A fantastic game-winning shot the night before had helped a lot; and a freakish accident had helped at least a little.
On Thursday, at the start of this long-awaited basketball weekend, the validity of Cincinnati's claim was yet to be proved. The four regional winners in the NCAA tournament all arrived that day, with Wake Forest from the east and UCLA from the west joining the two overwhelming favorites. At a press conference that afternoon Wake Forest's Bones McKinney, the last of the whooping cranes, took a long slug from a Royal Crown Cola, flashed his wild red socks, fluttered his arms unhappily and said of his semifinal round opponent, Ohio State, that "I'd take most any player they've got and use him instead of mine." Earlier in the season he had said his team was better than State's, but coaches' tunes change faster than won-and-lost records. Fred Taylor of Ohio State sat filing his fingernails so intently as he listened to this that it almost seemed he planned to scratch his way to victory. When his turn came he said everybody was talking about a Cincy-Ohio State final, but what if his team lost to Wake Forest? "Third place," he observed tartly, "is for the birds."
Ed Jucker, sitting tautly next to Taylor in a scene as warm and friendly as a summit conference, had a few nice things to say about his Friday night opponent, UCLA, but his mind was obviously on Ohio State. Those brash characters from UCLA, meanwhile, were the last to arrive. Gall, a couple of guards and a blistering attack had brought them some most unexpected success, but everybody knew Cincinnati would crush them. "I don't think we can beat Cincinnati at their slow-down game, and I don't much think we can beat them at our fast one either," said John Wooden, UCLA's coach, when he finally arrived. But that evening in a downtown hotel another coach made a nearly prophetic and certainly true observation. "You get to the semifinals on talent," he said. "But after that you are in the hands of God."
The next night Cincinnati fans firmly pinned on their "Hate State" buttons, Ohio State backers donned several thousand weird bibs that said "Go Go Ohio," Wake Forest men knotted their string ties right and 18,000 people repaired six miles south of town to a magnificent structure on the grounds of the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center called Freedom Hall. It is so big that binoculars are recommended gear there. The nearly invisible ceiling is either gray metal or cumulus clouds. It is too high to tell which.
The Wake Forest-Ohio State game began to a crescendo of sound from the Wake Forest drum-and-cymbal section and the displaying of a fervent though ill-advised Confederate-type sign: "Yankee Go Home!" Bones McKinney would have fainted if the Yankees had gone home. All five of his starters were Northerners. It took just two and a half minutes for Jerry Lucas to put in three baskets, and Wake Forest could have taken its Yankees home right there. The Buckeyes' All-America forward, rugged John Havlicek, so thoroughly contained Wake's broad-backed All-America Len Chappell that he could only make five of his 13 shots in the first half. Wake needs much more from him to win. The Buckeyes took a safe 46-34 half-time lead, and the game was over. Almost.
It was with six minutes and 19 seconds left that disaster struck Ohio State. Lucas had jumped as a Wake player missed a shot, seen that OSU would control the rebound and started to turn his body as he came down. His left leg hit the calf of Deacon Center Bob Woollard. This threw him just a fraction off balance, and he landed on his heel instead of his toe. Compared to the constant smashing body contact in basketball, this was as harmless looking as a flick of a finger. But it caused a strain of tissues in Lucas' left kneecap. (Though he has a history of knee trouble, this injury was a new one.) He fell, tried to get up and couldn't, finally stood on one leg and hopped toward the bench in pain. It was a hushed and sad moment, for it was obvious that the hoped-for dream game, pitting Lucas and company against Cincinnati, was only going to be half a dream now. Lucas was taken to the dressing room. Half an hour later he was still stretched out there, a towel filled with ice cubes wrapped around his knee. A large crowd formed around the dressing-room door, and his wife, Treva, sent a message in. "Will he be able to play tomorrow?" she asked. "Will the sun come up in the east?" answered a determined Lucas.
The best team in Louisville
Meanwhile UCLA, set to start against Cincinnati, unveiled the first of its many surprises of the night in the form of three glorious coed cheerleaders who held the entire crowd's rapt attention as they did the Charleston, twist and an original of their own called the prance. ("Two juniors and a sophomore," said a UCLA man proudly. "Good," said a reporter. "That means the best team in the NCAA may be back next year.") Instead of watching the cheerleaders, the relatively small UCLA team made what is a mistake in any sport. It turned to look at its champion opponents while they warmed up. The sight of mighty Paul Hogue, 6-foot-8 George Wilson and those two excellent guards, Tom Thacker and Tony Yates, was too much. After five and a half minutes of play UCLA was still watching the Bearcats warm up. Cincinnati had scored every time it brought the ball downcourt. Hogue had three baskets in two minutes. UCLA had not gotten a single rebound. The score was 18-4. "The worst start I ever saw," said John Wooden later. Then, incredibly, Cincinnati began to blow its lead. UCLA's Gary Cunningham fired in one long jump shot after another, and Guards Walt Hazzard and John Green drove Yates and Thacker to distraction. Usually icy-careful Cincinnati did something it hasn't done within memory. It squandered a 14-point lead. By half time the score was tied. It was still stubbornly and thrillingly tied 70-70 with 10 seconds left to play when Ed Jucker called for a time-out. Hogue had kept Cincinnati alive by scoring the previous 14 Bearcat points.
During the time-out Ed Jucker ordered a play designed to get the ball to Hogue. Cincinnati couldn't manage it, however, so it tried the first option off the play. Thacker drove to the right side, jumped and sank a 25-footer with three seconds left. Thacker is not a good outside shot. He had missed all six shots he had taken up to that point. Yet he made the one that mattered—which is what Cincinnati has done all year. "That team [ UCLA] is a lot better than anyone knows," said a relieved and wrung-out Jucker after the game. His team had played poorly, except for Hogue's 36-point effort, 20 more than his average. But the Bearcats beat the Wunderkinder from the West. Now Cincinnati and Ohio State were at last officially matched in the NCAA finals, and Louisville vividly celebrated the prospect. One rooter eventually sagged unconscious in an elevator at the Sheraton Hotel with a "do not disturb" sign attached tastefully to his chest, as he rode endlessly up and down to nowhere.