As the sun warmed and dissipated a persistent fog last Saturday morning, an eerie sight rose up on the edge of downtown Peoria. Outside a Quonsethut structure, a swarm of college students stood grim vigil, clothes unkempt, hands blackened from bonfires, eyes reddened by the evening watch. They were not queuing up for a Bob Dylan concert or a speech by William Kunstler. This day the theme and the message promised to be even shriller and more jarring. It was showdown time in the Valley.
Bradley and Louisville were meeting for the Missouri Valley Conference title, a little nugget that goes a long way in the end of the season assay. Mo-Val may read like the bumper sticker of two hillbilly sweethearts, but the league champion has been in the NCAA final round three of the last five years. No wonder Bradley students started standing in line for seats late Friday afternoon.
As it developed, their anticipation was rewarded. The game was a classic, a bitterly contested, cleanly played gem that Louisville won 87-84 in overtime. Junior Bridgeman scored on a three-point play with seven seconds remaining as Louisville went through the crucial moments with its two top players missing on fouls and a pair of substitute freshman guards pulling the strings. It was Bradley's first loss of the season in Robertson Memorial Field House, which is nothing much more than two airplane hangars sewn together, with acoustics like the inside of a drum. Opponents usually leave there with Orphan Annie eyes.
Bradley began the afternoon a game behind Louisville in the standings, but seemed on its way to forcing a playoff as it nursed a two-point lead into the final minute of overtime. Then Braves Center Greg Smith reached out to try for the nail-down points and fell off the mountain. He missed a short jump shot that hit the rim and bounced away, and Louisville sub Ike Whitfield turned it into a fast-break lay-in. Another miss by Bradley's Doug Shank set up the final play, with Bridgeman breaking clear and receiving a swift pass from freshman Guard Billy Harmon. The sound of Bradley hearts breaking could be heard all the way to Chicago.
The Braves spent much more than effort in this game, and did not get back any change. At the beginning of the season, they were picked to finish sixth in the Valley, but urged on by their indefatigable coach, Joe Stowell, a diminutive Rumpelstiltskin who windmills up and down the sidelines, they had inched up close enough to feel the warmth of the sun. "A lesser team than Louisville would have folded," said Stowell afterward, his voice hoarse and choked.
Stowell and Louisville Coach Denny Crum are antitheses in style and looks. The Bradley coach is a 47-year-old who talks in the quicksilver tongue of a Beat the Clock contestant. His pasty skin makes him look as if a vampire has been after his jugular. Crum, on the other hand, epitomizes the neo-coach: double-knit slacks, patent-leather pumps, spray-lacquered razor cut, spiffy smile. He turned 37 on Saturday and has the charm and persistence of a storm-window salesman. Since he moved from an assistant's post at UCLA three years ago, he has kept the rest of the Valley out in the cold. The Cardinals have won two titles, finished second once and have an overall record of 68-17.
During a game Stowell's posture runs the gamut from supplication to rage, from disgust to elation. After mistakes he screams his torment at the offender, then skitters up and down the bench to bark at the subs. Each day he is on the court 45 minutes before practice to play in three-on-three games with his players—elbowing, diving for loose balls, a middle-aged man employing a Kamikaze defense. "That's the only way to play," he sputters. Says Greg Smith, "He gets out there and goes crazy."
Despite their differing personalities, Crum and Stowell are friends. While scouting Louisville, Stowell sent a note to Crum that read, "I will beat you in gin rummy March 1." Answered Crum, "I hope he brings his credit cards." The game never did come off. Maybe Stowell figured he already had lost enough money. His team bus got a speeding ticket on the way to Drake earlier in the week.
Smith is typical of the Braves' players. Only 6'5", he chose Bradley because he did not think the university could recruit a really big man to supplant him. Now he is a sophomore with an 18.5 average. " Smith might be the only college center who can't dunk," says Stowell. "He looks like he can't play. He's chubby. But he gets the ball in the basket." Against Louisville, Smith scored 14 points despite a sore thumb that was dislocated two weeks ago, and he caused Wesley Cox, the visitor's sensational freshman center, to foul out. Explaining his success against bigger opponents, Smith said, "Everybody I play says I'm dirty out there."
Louisville has a size problem of its own because its regular big man, Bill Bunton, is academically ineligible. The Cardinals do have some jumpin' jack flashes, which is part of the reason they are able to dare opponents into shooting, then swat the ball away while it is in mid-flight. Bill Butler, a 6'1" forward, has a Mickey Rooney jump. His 42-inch spring is almost as high as the actor. He led both teams in rebounding Saturday with 12.