- Saturday, March 24 1984 -
NCAA Mideast Regional Finals (at Lexington, KY)
Kentucky - 54 (Head Coach: Joe B. Hall) - [Final Rank 3rd by AP]
Illinois - 51 (Head Coach: Lou Henson) - [Final Rank 6th by AP and 6th by UPI]
Halftime Score: Kentucky 24, Illinois 22
|Prior Game|||||Next Game|
|Louisville 72 - 67|||||Georgetown 40 - 53|
Game Writeup - by Billy Reed, Louisville Courier-Journal
The Final Force
LEXINGTON, March 24, 1984 -- In the midst of the madness, as delirious fans clawed at them and the noise cascaded from the rafters of Rupp Arena, the University of Kentucky players formed a knot at midcourt and thanked each other.
It was their moment, after all, and it was touching to see the smiles and hugs. By beating Illinois, 54-51, yesterday in the final of the N.C.A.A. Mideast Regional, Sam Bowie, Dickey Beal & Co. did more than just earn a berth in next Saturday's Final Four in Seattle.
They put the Wildcats back where they are accustomed to being, which is at the top of the college game. Now, after six long and frustrating years, the Big Blue is no longer the Big Blew.
"Its an awesome feeling," said Beal, the 5-foot-10 senior from Covington. "Making the Final Four has been a goal of ours for a long time. It makes all the hurt and pain and hard practices worth it. But this victory is not just ours -- it's everybody's."
Since winning the N.C.A.A. tide in 1978, the Wildcats and their followers have had to swallow one bitter pill after another. Upset tournament losses at home in 1979 and 1980 to end the season. Upset tournament losses to lesser teams (where did you go, Middle Tennessee State?) in 1981 and 1982.
And last year, of course, The Game against Louisville in Knoxville for the Mideast championship. The Cats played well for 40 minutes, but collapsed in overtime. The Cards of Denny Crum took an 80-68 victory, the trip to Albuquerque for the Final Four, and bragging rights in the state.
But now, a year later, The Empire has struck back. "I'm on Cloud 10," said Bowie, the 7-foot-1 senior from Lebanon, Pa., who was celestial yesterday with 14 rebounds and 11 points.
This Saturday the Cats will meet the winner of today's West Regional final.
Illinois coach Lou Henson yesterday said he liked UK's chances to win its sixth N.C.A.A. title and second in the Hall era that began in 1972-73.
"Kentucky's a super team," Henson said. "They're well-coached, they play hard, and we wish them well in Seattle."
But regardless of what happens in the Kingdome, this has been a marvelous season for Hall and his team no matter how you measure it: a 29-4 record, the championship of the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament, and the N.C.A.A. Mideast Regional title.
Of course, UK was expected to do all those things, but as North Carolina coach Dean Smith no doubt would testify today, it's not always so easy to fulfill the great expectations that are born of great talent.
The seeds for this Final Four team were planted by Hall back in 1979, when he landed Bowie to go with a freshman class that included Derrick Hord, Charles Hurt and Dirk Minniefield.
However, after showing extraordinary promise and growth as a freshman and sophomore, Bowie came down with a hairline fracture in his left shin -- an injury that, mysteriously, required him to miss two complete seasons.
The events of this season indicate how good UK might have been in those seasons with a healthy Bowie to go with 6-foot-11 Melvin Turpin. Maybe the Cats would have been in the Final Four both years, and maybe they wouldn't, but you can count on this: They wouldn't have lost to Middle Tennessee in 1982.
This season, finally, Bowie was able to come back. And if his play -- especially on offense -- wasn't always quite what he wanted it to be, he still was good enough to instill a new sense of confidence in his teammates. He no doubt would be UK's Comeback Player of the Year were it not for Beal, the Cat-a-lyst whose dribbling, ballhandling, passing and outside shooting have turned this team from a good one into an outstanding one.
Hampered since the end of last season by a knee injury, Beal reached the point this season where he was ready to quit. But Hall, understanding the difference a healthy Beal would make, prodded and nudged him into sticking with it.
He came off the bench against Auburn on Saturday, Feb. 11, to spark UK to a 20-point win. After only one more game, Hall put him in the starting lineup at point guard in place of sophomore Roger Harden.
From that time to this, the Wildcats have lost only once -- to Tennessee at Knoxville on Monday, Feb. 27. That led Hall to crack down in practices. The coach simply would not permit this team to fall short of its potential.
"All the tough practices were no fun while they were going on," said 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Kenny Walker, "but winning this makes it all worthwhile."
After closing the regular season with homecourt wins over Ole Miss and L.S.U., the Wildcats went to Nashville for the S.E.C. Tournament -- and won the trophy for the first time since the event was revived in 1979.
After the victory over Auburn in the S.E.C. title game, Beal said he thought it would make a big difference for UK to go into the N.C.A.A.. on a winning note.
Let the record show that he was correct.
In their opening N.C.A.A. game last Saturday in Birmingham, the Cats blew out Brigham Young to earn the trip back home. Then, on Thursday night, they had the poise to overcome an incredibly courageous performance by Louisville.
It's pointless to speculate about what might have been had the Mideast been played somewhere other than Rupp. Perhaps UK might have lost to Louisville or Illinois.
Then again, without having to deliver before the most demanding fans in basketball, perhaps the Wildcats would have played even better.
"At a neutral site," said Illinois center George Montgomery, "it might have gone our way. I guess it all depends on what kind of referees we have."
The Illini weren't crybabies about it, but Henson indicated that he definitely thought the officiating hurt his team yesterday. For one thing, going into the last couple of minutes of the second half, UK had only two team fouls -- meaning that the Wildcats could give up a few at the end without being penalized.
Also, with UK leading, 52-50, at the 14-second mark, Henson felt that Beal should have been called for traveling when Illinois had him double-teamed and trapped near midcourt.
Instead, the Illini's Bruce Douglas was whistled for hacking Beal on the arms. The UK guard made both free throws for a 54-50 lead that provided the Cats with the cushion they needed.
It was an excellent defensive game.
While the Illinois man-to-man did a good job of containing UK's inside game, the Cats used both a man-to-man and a 2-3 zone to handle the intricate Illini offense built around perpetual motion and picks.
It also was a hard-fought game in which, at one time or another, UK's Walker, Bowie and Beal all had to leave, momentarily, because of injuries.
In Beal's case, he made the mistake of venturing under the basket during a rebounding scuffle -- a No Man's Land for a player of his size. He took an elbow to the nose from Bowie, of all people, and had to go to the bench.
"One of the few times I go under the basket -- and I get knocked out," Beal said later, smiling ruefully. "You're not going to see me go under there anymore."
But, of course, he came back to lead UK to its most important win in years.
After the game, when it was announced that Beal had been named the Mideast's Most Valuable Player, Walker and Turpin hoisted him onto their shoulders.
The little man had a smile that stretched from here to Seattle. At that moment, in every place around the country where there are fans who bleed Blue, there had to be hearts full of joy.
The Empire, finally, had struck back.
Jim Master (#20) and Sam Bowie fight Efrem Winters and an unidentified Illini player for a rebound
Melvin Turpin (#54) defends
Dicky Beal celebrates the Regional victory and his MVP award