At Kentucky they care a lot, and that intensity was reflected on the faces of the Wildcat players even before the game. During the introductions the young Duke starters—two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior—ran out smiling and hugging. The Kentucky players—three seniors, one junior and a sophomore—were grim, gritting their teeth. Duke Coach Bill Foster literally skipped to shake Hall's hand; Hall stalked.
For all their easy, breezy spirit, the Blue Devils could never get the lead. Just as they had done in the semifinals, Spanarkel, Mike Gminski and Gene Banks each scored 20 points or more, but that was not enough. " Kentucky," Foster summed it up, "is a great team."
The Wildcats showed it in the way they attacked Duke's zone and in the way they shut off the Blue Devils' transition game. The losers, who had pounded several previous tournament opponents with their fast break, got next to nothing from their running game against Kentucky. They made it close at the end, but they couldn't make it all the way back. "Give us a lot of credit," said Foster. "We've had a lot of fun and accomplished more than most people thought we could."
While Kentucky came to St. Louis seeking to fulfill its destiny, Duke, Notre Dame and Arkansas seemed thrilled merely to be part of the show. The prevailing opinion was that any one of the final four could win the tournament but only Kentucky could lose it. After all, the Wildcats had the highest ranking (No. 1), the best record (28-2) and the most experience. They had won the most demanding regional, defeating three regular-season conference champions. And, lest anyone forget, Kentucky is Kentucky, the school that has won more games and played in more NCAA tournaments than any other.
In striking contrast, Duke had finished last in the Atlantic Coast Conference each of the previous four years before vaulting to second and winning the league tournament this season. "It's about five thrills for me just to come to St. Louis and practice," said Foster.
The coaches of the other teams, Digger Phelps of No. 6 Notre Dame and Eddie Sutton of No. 5 Arkansas, felt pretty much the same way. At a Friday night meeting of team, tournament and television network representatives, Phelps looked over at Sutton and, grinning, said, "Isn't it great to be here?" Sutton agreed that it certainly was but, as it happened, neither was able to enjoy himself for very long. The next afternoon both their teams fell behind and came up short in comeback attempts, the Irish losing to Duke 90-86, the Razorbacks to Kentucky 64-59.
The Blue Devils played brilliantly for 36 minutes against the Irish, building a 16-point lead, but they nearly threw the game away in the last four minutes, when turnovers, poor rebounding and Notre Dame's torrid outside shooting cut the margin to two. Duke was saved by its free-throw accuracy, which is not surprising because it led the country with a 78% average, and by Notre Dame Guard Duck Williams' miss of a 22-foot shot with 18 seconds left. Had his shot dropped, it would have tied the game.
Although Duke didn't score any field goals after Banks' three-point play with 3:55 to go, the Blue Devils sank 10 straight free throws down the stretch, and they made 32 of 37 overall. That was enough to hold off the Irish, who got scorching shooting from substitute Forward Tracy Jackson and, before his miss, Williams. "It was a gallant comeback," said Phelps, "but when you are playing catchup you have to be near perfection."
When time finally did run out ("I was about to call for a mechanic to check the clock," said Foster), the Blue Devils swarmed onto the court as if the national championship had been won. For the exuberant freshman Banks, the game's leading rebounder who also scored 22 points—a number of them on spectacular rampages to the bucket—the victory seemed enough for this season. "We're No. 1 for sure next year," he told his teammates in the shower. "Wait a minute," the older, wiser Spanarkel, who had 20 points, reminded him. "We're not done with this year yet."
By comparison, the second semifinal was a match of graybeards. Kentucky and Arkansas are senior-dominated teams, a primary reason why they had the best records in the country over the last two years. Experience enabled them to perfect their contrasting quick-vs.-strong styles, although neither played anywhere near perfection in a ragged game that was marked by excessive fouling and persnickety refereeing.