Was it the 24-year gap between games that did it? Or the fussin' and feud-in' proximity of neighbors who live barely 75 miles apart, as the bluegrass grows? Or the importance of the occasion—the finals of the Mideast Regional, from which only the winner would have a chance at the national championship? Surely it was all these things and more that lifted Louisville's 80-68 overtime victory over Kentucky last Saturday from the merely extraordinary to a game that people will remember as long as the ball remains round.
Why, if this wasn't a veritable Kentucky Derby of a confrontation on the fast Tartan track of Knoxville's Stokely Athletics Center, it will have to do until the real mint juleps are served. The Dream Game That Finally Came, it was billed in one of many hypes. At the post were Cardinal Coach Denny Crum in a red jacket. Wildcat Coach Joe B. Hall in blue and the governor of the Commonwealth and his dieting dervish of a first lady—John Y. and Phyllis George NFL Today Brown—wearing red and blue. There were the Louisville and Kentucky cheerleaders linking arms, spanning the court and revolving in a long straight line to the emotional strains of My Old Kentucky Home. And there was the star-to-be of the game, a thoroughbred of an athlete named Lancaster Gordon (no. not out of Ruth Gordon by Burt Lancaster) furiously chomping at the bit along with the rest of the players.
Once the race began. Kentucky appeared to have it won in the first half, only to have Louisville just as assuredly lock it up in the second, only to have the Wildcats dramatically tie the score at the regulation buzzer. Finally, incredibly, the Cardinals roared away to steal and block and dunk and erupt for 14 straight OT points. Gordon, who had 24 points and four steals on the day, and Milt Wagner—10 points in the overtime—led a charge in OT that was as devastating as anything Secretariat ever did in the home stretch. "We snowballed 'em," Crum conceded. "It was kind of spectacular."
But weep no more, my lady—for Kentucky, for the embattled Hall or for his much maligned 'Cats, who were obviously out-quicked, out-jumped and overmatched at practically every position, but who kept clawing back into the fray before ultimately submitting to what Hall called "a super team, the best team in the country."
If Louisville is that, the Wildcats can't be much worse. What a revelation that is. After all, this was the alleged choke-in-the-big-ones Kentucky, which shot 56.1% from the field and still lost. These were the haunted 'Cats, perpetrators of recent NCAA foldups against the likes of UAB and Middle Tennessee State. Yet Kentucky held the renowned high-wire artists from up Interstate 64 to a virtual standoff on the boards (28-27, Louisville). These Wildcats failed only because over the last 25 minutes the deep and deadeye Cardinals forced 14 turnovers and shot 22 of 27—an astounding 81.5%.
It was on March 13, 1959, Friday the 13th, that these two old non-rivals—"A rivalry that never was," says Crum—had last met. Louisville stunned No. 1 ranked Kentucky 76-61 in the, yes, Mideast Regional at Evanston, Ill.
What bothers Crum isn't so much that Kentucky refuses to schedule Louisville. He isn't naive; Tennessee won't touch Memphis State either, for instance. Crum is bugged by what he perceives as an arrogant, condescending attitude emanating from the state university. And, of course, there was a certain CBS-TV tape on which Hall was asked to explain why he doesn't play Louisville. He replied: "Cut, cut...could we dissolve here? Is it [the tape] off?"
Before game day the two coaches insisted they actually were quite friendly—"We both agreed we'd rather be fishing," Crum said—and then they began unloading none-too-subtle broadsides. Crum called the Wildcat Lodge, Kentucky's athletic dorm, "an isolation ward. We don't hide. We live like normal human beings." Then he added, "The pressure is on Kentucky. Our record is better the last 10 years. They have a chance to carve into our success."
Initially, Hall had preferred the underdog's collar. He even blamed Crum for the teams' not playing as recently as November in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic in Springfield, Mass. "They made a choice not to play us of their own free will without any pressure from the public or the fans," Hall said. Crum was ready for that, too. He said such a game was a setup defeat—his less experienced Cards versus a veteran Kentucky. "My name's Tucker, not sucker," said Crum, whose name honestly is Denzel, not Denny. "Joe wanted the best of all worlds. Let's play in the state, not Massachusetts. They may beat us by 20 and he may outcoach me, but the reverse could happen, too. They're not playing an empty chair."
Nor to any empty seats. Scalpers were getting as much as $1,000 a pop. "Give our fans a choice to win the national championship game or beat the Kentucky Wildcats and they'd take this one right here," said Louisville Assistant Coach Jerry Jones. "This is the nation that counts."