DALLAS — Duke. Louisville.
For the last 48 hours in this maddened, beer-sucking city, these were the only two words on everyone’s lips. The people in blue hats would yell one, the people in red hats would yell the other.
The hotel lobbies echoed with chants. The people on streets outside Reunion Arena took sides. Hours before the game, fans staked out curbs and sidewalks. Red or blue? Friend or enemy?
College basketball, this was, and these were the two best. Weren’t they the
two best? They had endured an elimination like no other in major sports, from 64 loaded pistols down to two chambers fighting over one bullet. They had each won five games in this gut-testing NCAA tournament, and the jeweled crown — the national championship — awaited the team that took the sixth.
Sixty-two skeletons. Two warm bodies.
Louisville. Duke. Slap, then a dash You trembled when they took the floor, that’s how deafening the roar was. This was more than 16,000 shrieking throats crammed in for the biggest game in college basketball.
Duke was cast as the intelligent team, the yuppie team, the No. 1 team in the nation. Five smart role players led by a blur named Johnny Dawkins, who could do all a guard should do with a ball: push it, pass it, pop it.
Louisville was the streak team, the cruise controller. Five supersonic leapers under a scowling ringmaster named Denny Crum, whose racing machine had sprinted past its last 16 opponents.
This figured to be faster than your heartbeat.
Jump it up.
And, whoosh, they’re gone. Speeding like a drumroll. Which was appropriate, because the game immediately turned into the Johnny Dawkins Show. Dawkins from the outside. Swish. Dawkins drives the lane. Swish.
The Duke defense was also living up to its billing. The Blue Devils played slapdash — as in slap it away, dash for a score. Could you steal an NCAA championship?
Meanwhile, the Louisville seniors (Milt Wagner, Billy Thompson, Jeff Hall) were floundering. Bad sign for the red, right?
But you never know in these games. Enter freshman center Pervis Ellison, the baby of the team, who simply kept Louisville in the game. Scored 12 points in the first half, and dominated Duke’s Jay Bilas. The buzzer sounded. And while it felt as if Duke was pocketing this thing, it didn’t read that way. It read the Blue Devils, 37-34. Three points? What kind of lead was that? Louisville comes alive There is usually a moment when the script becomes clear. On this night it seemed to come with 12 1/ 2 minutes left in the game, when, within 11 seconds, Louisville’s Wagner and Thompson both picked up their fourth fouls, then went to the bench.
Well now. A plot. How could Louisville win without its two biggest stars? But on magic nights you get magic performances, and behind their supporting cast — most notably Ellison, whose game here will be talked about for years
— the Cardinals pulled back.
And . . . look up. Five minutes left. Wagner and Thompson are back in. And we’re right back where we started. Same cast. Same maddening crowd. Same stomach doing flip-flops. And a one- point game, see-sawing back and forth.
How can you describe those final minutes? Raging? Furious? Delirious? Say only that Louisville came alive, Wagner and Thompson and Ellison, dominating the boards, hitting their shots. Duke, so much in control earlier, suddenly went flat. The shots hit rim, not net, Dawkins seemed spent, too tired for any more miracles.
Fate had found its team. And when Hall threw up an air ball and Ellison caught it and dropped in the easiest of jumpers to make it 68-65, Louisville, with 38 seconds left, fate had taken the Cardinals and kissed them squarely on the lips.
“They broke us down,” would be the way Dawkins would put it, and he and his teammates would learn a painful lesson: It’s not who wins the beginning, it’s who wins at the end.
The final score would be 72-69. A magnificent game. Two teams only a breath apart in talent and only three points apart on the scoreboard.
How will it be remembered? Maybe this way. It was a game summed up by two words going in and one word going out.