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On the evening Louisville arrived in Birmingham for the Mideast Regional, senior Poncho Wright led an expedition to the UAB campus, which is just across the street from the hotel where the Cards were quartered. Wright is the effervescent fellow who coined a slogan for Louisville's surprising run to the NCAA title two years ago—"The 'Ville [as in Louisville] is going to The 'Nap [as in India-nap-olis]." It played so well that this season Wright had to deal with the pressure not only of helping the Cards work out of a horrendous midseason slump but also of coining a slogan for the team's subsequent drive to the Superdome.
Perhaps to escape the pressure, or maybe just in search of inspiration, Wright decided to investigate this curious phenomenon known as UAB. On the maps of the college basketball world, the University of Alabama in Birmingham was terra incognita until five years ago, when Gene Bartow left another alphabet-soup school—UCLA—to build a program from scratch. While walking around the campus, Wright and his pals discovered a bunch of restless natives taking part in that old American ritual known as the pep rally.
"I just sort of got behind a big tree and peeked around," Wright said later. "We had on our warmups and stuff. When they lit the bonfire, I decided it was time for us to get out of there." As it happened, both teams reached the finals on Saturday, but it was the Blazers who got burned as Wright & Co. wrought a 75-68 victory.
Of the four teams that gathered last week in steamy Birmingham, UAB and Louisville were the off-the-rack contenders, while the other Mideast competitors, Virginia and Minnesota, represented the Brooks Brothers of the college game—the ACC and the Big Ten.
Louisville's credentials, however, did include the 1980 NCAA championship and a sizable contingent of fans who like to paint their faces and use body language to spell out C-A-R-D-S. The Blazers, on the other hand, were so new to the game that they had as little backing as tradition. En route to winning the conference, Bartow's team of transfers, hand-me-downs and castoffs drew an average of slightly more than 7,000 in the 17,000-seat Birmingham Coliseum across town from the campus—even though the team is built around a core of local products led by Oliver Robinson. That splendid, 6'4" guard became the school's first high school recruit because "I knew I could make the starting lineup—there wasn't anybody there."
In UAB's 68-66 semifinal win over Virginia, Ralph Sampson had 19 points, but he wasn't there when it counted either. The top-seeded 30-4 Cavaliers lost track of their meal ticket in the final 10 minutes of the game and couldn't get him the ball.
Louisville had eliminated Minnesota 67-61, thanks to a superb offensive game by sophomore Guard Lancaster Gordon (23 points, 10 of 14 field goal shooting) and an excellent defensive job on 7'3" Randy Breuer. Although the Gopher giant scored 22 points, Louisville put the clamps on in the second half by double-teaming him with 6'8" sophomore Charles Jones and 6'7" junior Rodney McCray.
In the Saturday final, UAB figured to give the Cards plenty of trouble before 16,754 spectators, obviously including a good many newfound fans, but it was also the opponent of Louisville's dreams. The Blazers didn't have a dominating big man and were likely to play the Cards straight up, without holding the ball to kill the clock and neutralize Louisville's strengths—depth, quickness, a full-court zone press and a devastating fast break.
In retrospect, considering the number and ability of Louisville's athletes, it seems remarkable that in early February the Cards were only 12-8. But since the graduation of Darrell Griffith to the Utah Jazz after the championship season, the Cards have had trouble defining and understanding their roles and relationships; everyone wanted to take Griffith's place, but no one could. Understanding that, Crum decided to exploit his surfeit of talent by developing and utilizing a deep bench—even if it caused a few bruised egos and some losses.
When a four-game losing streak—the longest since 1965—left the Cards 11-7, Crum put Jones on the bench, moved Rodney McCray into the pivot and installed 6'8", 220-pound senior Wiley Brown at forward. Once the roles were defined, the next step was to determine a star—the player who wanted, and who got, the ball when the team needed a hoop. It never happened. Instead, the Cardinals began to go with the flow, working hard to get the ball to whoever had the hot hand. The absence of a dictator—a Sampson, say, or a Terry Cummings of DePaul—was overcome by a sort of democracy, with a new election held every game.