DALLAS — Well, I guess there are times when even God, the Soviet Union, and your mother aren’t enough.
Bye-bye, Dale Brown, master of ceremonies.
The coach who invoked more inspirational heroes than a closet full of Bibles, whose team played “less is more” basketball longer than anyone figured it could, and whose uniforms are the ugliest combination of colors I have ever seen, is finally out of the NCAA tournament.
And Louisville is still alive — and is one half of Monday night’s Malice In Dallas Showdown, a.k.a. the NCAA championship.
Yes, the Louisville Cardinals, with their staid coach, Denny Crum, and their well-balanced attack and their everything- it-should-be basketball program, held off the scrambling Tigers and won, as they were favored to do, 88-77.
But for a while there . . .
For a while there, it was looking like deja vu. We had seen this before. Hadn’t we seen it before? An underdog comes out of nowhere and makes it to the Big Game. Was that Dale Brown out there or Rollie Massimino? Were those the LSU Tigers, or the Villanova Wildcats? Is it summer already? Are we watching reruns?
It sure looked that way in the first half. LSU came out smoking in its yellow and purple sneakers. The team was all over the place, stealing the ball, tipping it into the air, pushing it down the floor and into the basket. The look on the faces of the Louisville players was unmistakable. Color it bewilderment.
Color it 7-2, and 11-4 and a 44-36 halftime edge for LSU. Louisville never had the lead. Brown’s ragtag crew was playing as if this were a pickup game in its own personal sandlot, and how dare these Cardinals come in and try to beat the Tigers?
But color it temporary.
I DON’T KNOW what was said in the Louisville locker room at halftime. Probably something about maintaining poise and remembering what got them there and all that.
Meanwhile, Brown was no doubt invoking World War II, Casper the Friendly Ghost and The Little Train That Could. These speeches had fired up his team before — a team that wasn’t even ranked in the final Associated Press poll, had lost seven players this season, yet had made it all the way here, to the Final Four.
“The guys who built the Donner Pass had lousy odds, too,” Brown explained. Huh?
Well, anyhow, OK.
The first half was already theirs, and if the next 20 minutes went the same, it would be deja vu for the underdogs. Another sleeper in the NCAA final.
But no. This time it was the Tigers who lost it mentally in the second half — and then numerically.
“There was a five-minute stretch in the second half when we got out of our rhythm,” Brown said. “We hurried our offense. We knew we couldn’t do that and win.”
AND WHILE THAT was happening, Louisville, behind forward Billy Thompson
— who would miss only one shot all afternoon — closed the gap, erased it, then built one of its own. A good fast-breaking team, Louisville turned the velocity knob up several notches. Its speed now.
All of a sudden, the LSU shots that had dropped in the first half were thudding off the rim. The pinpoint passing was a fraction behind. John Williams, who seemed to play out of his body in the first half, was back in it in the second. Derrick Taylor, who was mostly net the first half, was mostly backboard and rim. The steals were just wild swipes. The magic emotion was dripping off.
And the scoreboard and the clock were no longer friends.
The Cardinals took 10-point leads. They dropped in lay-ups. Milt Wagner dished assist after assist. And when the final buzzer sounded, the Cardinals had continued a neat little comeback story of their own. Remember, this team was 11-6 early in the season.
Now the Cardinals are NCAA finalists. They have a tomorrow. Which is the one thing all of Brown’s heroes could not bring him.
This was a tremendous game of basketball, a crock-pot of all the ingredients that bring people out to these things in the first place. But in the end it was a day when odds prevailed. A day for talent over emotion, for a stiff upper lip over a war cry, for the hare not the tortoise.
It would have been nice to see LSU, an underdog — a big underdog — make it to the final. And after all, we’ve seen it before. But not this day.
It’s over hill, it’s over Dale, no more hitting the tournament trail.
Louisville didn’t have God or Humpty Dumpty dancing in its locker room. But the Cardinals had talent. And they had poise. It was enough.
No more deja vu.
Call it deja LU.