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It was never easy for Kentucky. There was never any time to sit and smile. From the very first game this season, the Wildcats were haunted by their tradition, pressured by their opponents and driven mercilessly by their coach. All of the joys of winning had to wait until they had won it all.
That glorious moment came last Monday night in the championship game of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis. There was the marvelous Jack Givens, a net around his neck, and there, too, was Coach Joe Hall, the monkey finally off his back. And in the background a chorus of fans sang the poignant and appropriate lyrics from My Old Kentucky Home. "Weep no more my lady, weep no more for me."
If there were any Kentucky tears in the Checkerdome, they were tears of relief and joy after the Wildcats had defeated gutty Duke 94-88. But once again it had not come easy. Just when victory seemed certain and Hall had taken most of his starters out one by one to allow each his deserved acclaim, the Blue Devils cut a 13-point lead to six with 23 seconds left. Hall had to rush the regulars back into the fray to hold off Duke's last charge. Not until James Lee slammed in the final two points were the Wildcats certain they had triumphed.
But it was Givens who really won the game, scoring 41 points, his career high and just three points shy of the championship-game record set by Bill Walton in this arena five years ago. All night long the Goose was cookin', working the baseline, popping from the corners and sneaking into the middle. He swished 'em, he banked 'em, and when it was over, he thanked 'em. "We won it for the people of Kentucky," he said.
Givens has always been the most versatile of Cats. He has the shoulders of a Csonka and the grace of a Nureyev. But he has always been the blandest, too. "We haven't seen the films," he said with a straight face, "so we don't know how well we played."
Everyone else did. Kentucky was Givens, and Givens was great, scoring the last 16 points of the opening half as the Wildcats ran a one-point lead to seven. And after putting in 23 points in the first half, he added 18 in the second. Inexplicably, the Blue Devils did not come out of their zone defense until it was too late, and Givens just kept pouring in sweet jumpers, along with a selection of tips, layins and free throws. "When we saw how open Duke was leaving the middle, we junked our game plan and just tried to get it in to Jack," Hall said.
Though the Blue Devils did not recognize the need to adjust their defense soon enough, they were quick to appreciate a magnificent performance. " Jack Givens played the best game I have ever seen anyone play," said Duke's junior Captain Jim Spanarkel, who was no slouch himself with 21 points. "I guess we played him on a night we shouldn't have played him."
Givens was so devastating, hitting 18 of 27 shots, that only one other Wildcat could break into double figures. Appropriately, that was another senior, Rick Robey, who shot eight for 11, scored 20 points and led the Kentucky rebounders with 11. It was Robey, the 6'10" center-forward, who made the most spectacular play of the game. With 7:39 to go. Hall charged onto the court during a brief stop in play to chide Robey for some indiscretion. Seconds later Robey responded by grabbing a missed shot and jamming it into the basket in one motion.
The victory came 20 years after Kentucky's fourth and most recent national championship and none too soon for Hall and his Fysical Five. Like the two national champions before them, Marquette last year and Indiana in 1976, the Wildcat seniors made good on this trip, to the final four after failing as freshmen.
Considering the manic fervor of Kentucky fans, the Wildcats might have been hanged from the nearest Arch had they come up short again. That is the kind of pressure Hall and his teams have lived with the last four seasons, even while winning 102 games. "We are expected to win," Hall had said, "but I wouldn't want to be at a school where people didn't care."