After all that had happened in Indianapolis Monday night, the only real surprise was that Darrell Griffith didn't grab the national championship trophy, take another stutter step and make one last glorious leap straight through the rafters of Market Square Arena, not to touch down until he was over Louisville. No other encore would have been as fitting following Griffith's wondrous performance, which finally turned the crazy NCAA tournament right side up and gave Louisville a 59-54 defeat of UCLA.
Oh, there were other heroes for the Cardinals. Rodney McCray, who had a game-high 11 rebounds; Wiley Brown, who left his famous artificial thumb on the breakfast table and had to have it retrieved from a hotel dumpster; Roger Burkman, whose lip was Sliced open by a team manager's clipboard late in the game; and Jerry Eaves, the overlooked second guard who played with two good thumbs, two good lips and consummate poise. Brown and Burkman took down the key late rebounds, and Eaves made two clutch baskets to tie the game at 54-all with 2:54 remaining.
But it was Griffith who came through when all the freshmen and sophomores on both sides weren't up to the task. "Just his presence out there was the big factor," said UCLA Coach Larry Brown. "We were trying to guard the greatest player in the country."
After Louisville Coach Denny Crum had given his team a halftime tongue lashing—"You're choking," he said; after seven lead changes in the second half; after Rocket Rod Foster and Slew Sanders had forged the Bruins' biggest lead, 50-45, with 6:28 remaining; and after Griffith had been held without a basket for almost 10 minutes by the skin-tight checking of three different Bruins; the Louisville star went to work. In a little more than four minutes he was responsible for 11 points with a three-point play off an alley-oop pass, a jumper from deep in the corner, two assists to Eaves (for an open 16-footer and a drive) when every defender in the vicinity was converging on Griffith; and, ultimately, the capper, one last up-up-and-away shot from the top of the circle that grazed nothing but cord and gave Louisville a lead (56-54) it would keep forever.
It was Griffith's ninth and last basket—he had a game-high 23 points—and, as it turned out, the Cards didn't need any more, because the Bruins finally began to show the effects of the tenacious Louisville press and of the tension in what Larry Brown called "the toughest NCAA final ever." UCLA threw the ball away and then lost what should have been an easy jump ball. The Cardinals were in a freeze now, and Derek Smith nailed two free throws with 52 seconds left to make the score 58-54.
UCLA had one last chance when senior Kiki Vandeweghe raced into the left corner for a jumper with 29 seconds remaining. Vandeweghe had attempted an ill-timed, off-balance, swooping, juking layup way back around the four-minute mark, which would have given the Bruins a six point lead (56-50), perhaps an insurmountable margin. But he missed that shot when the alert Eaves crossed underneath and forced him to change direction, and he missed this one, too. The Cardinals were home free. Reserve Poncho Wright shouted, "We're the baddest!" while Griffith himself put the evening in broader perspective.
"When I enrolled at Louisville I promised I'd bring home the championship," he said. "But tonight they sagged a lot and I capitalized on the others getting off. This was never just the Darrell Griffith Show. This was the Louisville Show."
As if winning the championship for his school wasn't enough, Griffith also rescued the final four from second-rate-itis. This was no small achievement considering that UCLA, Iowa and Purdue, the other three finalists, had finished fourth, tied for fourth and third in their respective conferences and had suffered 26 of the survivors' 29 defeats.
Though those 29 losses didn't break the record of the 1954 final four—La-Salle, Bradley, Penn State and USC had 33 among them—it wasn't exactly an upper. Among others on finals night, coaches George Raveling of Washington State and Jim Valvano of Iona must have been taking bows all around. During the regular season the Cougars whipped UCLA by 16 points and the Gaels embarrassed Louisville by 17.
If there was one thread connecting the improbabilities of the event, it was the legacy of John Wooden. The Wizard of Westwood's imprimatur was on every team: Wooden had been three times an All-America as a player at Purdue. He was an instructor at the naval pre-flight training school at Iowa during World War II. He had spent a legendary coaching career (10 national champions) at UCLA. Finally, he had tutored Crum, both as a UCLA player and as an assistant coach. As Wooden's wife Nell said one day, "John has about a 95% interest in this thing."