Louisville affirms place as college basketball's team of the '80s
In the world political arena there are coups d''etats. In the sports arena, maybe the closest equivalent is something that might be called a ``coup de 'Ville.'' College basketball fans witnessed one here Monday night when the University of Louisville, or the 'Ville for short, overtook top-ranked Duke in the final minutes to win the national championship game, 72-69.
With the victory, Louisville clearly established itself as the team of the decade.
``Anybody who thinks there's a better program than ours has been asleep the last six years,'' said coach Denny Crum, whose Cardinals have won two NCAA titles ('80 and now '86), and been in the semifinals two other times ('82 and '83) during that period.
This may not approach the 10-championship dominance UCLA enjoyed between 1964 and 1975, but Crum figures it's about as good as any team will ever produce, given today's more intensive competitive climate.
To truly appreciate what Louisville has done, Crum notes that Georgetown won only one NCAA crown with Patrick Ewing, while Virginia and Houston won none during the respective collegiate careers of superstars Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon.
To Louisville's credit, it has emerged as a perennial power without such a superior big man -- that is, until Pervis (Never Nervous) Ellison came along this year.
The unflappable 6 ft. 10 in. freshman was sensational in Monday night's championship showdown game, scoring a game-high 25 points and collecting 11 rebounds in a performance more characteristic of an upperclassman.
For his efforts against both Duke and semifinal victim Louisiana State, the 18-year-old from Savannah, Ga., became the first freshman since Utah's Arnie Ferrin in 1944 to be named the Final Four's outstanding player.
Ellison's clutch play came with all three of his team's senior starters -- Billy Thompson, Milt Wagner, and Jeff Hall -- scoring well below their tournament averages.
Pervis the Impervious was so impressive that one writer wondered if he might now consider dropping out of school to play in the National Basketball Association.
``I don't think I weigh enough for the NBA,'' said the gangly 195-pounder, whose praying-mantis physique wouldn't discourage the pros from drafting him.
Louisville's philosophy of playing as many top teams as possible sometimes creates a pattern of struggling early in the season, then coming on at the end like Derby winners at Churchill Downs. That's exactly what happened this go-round as the Cardinals started out 11-6, losing to such powers as Kansas, St. John's, and Kentucky, but later compiled a 17-game winning streak to close out a 32-7 campaign.
In the final, a brilliantly played defensive struggle, Duke took a 37-34 halftime lead, thanks largely to a ``H-e-r-e's Johnny'' scoring display by guard Johnny Dawkins, who had 15 points on an assortment of pinpoint jumpers and flights of fancy to the basket.
The Blue Devils managed a six-point lead several times in the second half, but couldn't shake Louisville, which found ways to shackle Dawkins and assert its height advantage. The Cardinals' greater size and especially its overall athleticism were telling in the rebounding department, where Louisville grabbed a dozen more missed shots than Duke did over the final 20 minutes.
``I thought our defense was excellent except in one area, blocking out,'' said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski of this key rebounding fundamental. He didn't blame his team's deepening foul trouble, either, simply acknowledging the Cardinals' talents in snaring missed shots.
Not surprisingly, Ellison came up with the most critical and bizarre rebound. It came with time running down on the shot clock, Louisville holding a precarious 66-65 lead, and only 39 seconds left in the game. Louisville's Hall let fly with a running jump shot that was badly short of its intended target. The ``airball'' caught virtually everybody napping but Ellison, who leaped up above the flat-footed throng under the basket to grab the ball and drop it in.
It was the most fortunate stroke of heads-up rebounding since the 1983 final, when Lorenzo Charles deposited another airball into the basket at the buzzer to give North Carolina State a 54-52 win over heavily favored Houston.
After Pervis's put-back shot, he grabbed yet another key rebound at the other end, was fouled, and sank both ends of a one-and-one to put Louisville up 70-65 and essentially secure the victory.
There can be no ignoring the masterly job the often-overlooked Crum has done to get Louisville back on top.
Denny, after all, raises cattle and reads Louis L'Amour westerns, so it's only appropriate that he ride into the off-season with another national title in the saddlebag.