Less than an hour after his Kentucky team had been eliminated from the West Regional Friday night in McNichols Arena, Coach Joe B. Hall announced that he was retiring from coaching.
His last game was an 86-70 loss to St. John's, the team ranked No. 3 in the country in both wire services, the team seeded No. 1 in this regional and the team that is most likely to advance to the Final Four after its game Sunday afternoon against North Carolina State.
In making official his retirement in an interview with the University of Kentucky radio network, Hall had nothing but praise for his last team, a group of youngsters who surprised even their coach by making the tournament at all.
While nearly a hundred reporters and photographers pushed and jockeyed for position with the television cameramen who also were anticipating the announcement in the courtside interview, a small covey of Kentucky fans stood in the stands straining to hear for themselves if the rumors were true.
Hall said: "This season has been a very rewarding one in that the players have exceeded what was expected of them. It has been exciting to watch this team develop. The satisfaction I have experienced makes it a little easier to say that this was my last game as head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. . . ."
"Last summer I decided this year would, in all probability, be my final year at Kentucky. . . . I wish I could have been more open with the members of the media regarding this matter, but I did not want anything to distract the team as it was working its way through some very tough times. This group of players has come together and formed a very credible representative of Kentucky's fine tradition."
Hall, 56, is retiring with a career record of 373-156. His record after 13 seasons at Kentucky is 297-100, including three trips to the Final Four and the national championship in 1978.
He knew that this year would be a rebuilding year and, indeed, the Wildcats got off to a tough start before receiving an at-large bid to the tournament with a record of 16-12.
But the Kentucky team held its own with St. John's Friday night.
Kentucky jumped out to the early lead and was ahead, 20-13, when its star player, Kenny Walker, suffered an eye injury that put him on the bench for much of the first half. Walker played the rest of the game with his right eye closing.
Squinting through the bruised, swollen eye after the game, Walker said, "Chris (Mullin) was coming over to give weakside help. He scratched me over the eye. . . . I didn't think he did it on purpose. He apologized right after it happened."
Walker wanted to say that the bad eye had no affect on his play, but Hall added, "Shut one eye and try to shoot. It changes your depth perception."
Walker finished with 23 points.
Mullin, winner of the John Wooden Award and consensus All-American, led St. John's with 30 points and seven assists.
Mullin did most of his damage from the perimeter, and he said: "I think those were the easiest shots I've gotten all year. I was pulling back in the second half, but Kentucky didn't change at all--they stuck to the same defense they've been using all year. I was relieved and surprised. It was nice running around out there. It was like being out of jail for a night."
St. John's came back to lead by one point at the half but still was not able to run away with the game until the final minutes.
A three-point play by Walker with 9:43 left put Kentucky within three points, but St. John's scored five straight to take control. With two minutes to play and an eight-point lead, St. John's went to a ball-control game, forcing Kentucky to foul.
In the next few seconds, Mark Jackson made two more free throws and Mullin made two to make it a 12-point game.
St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca said: "The second half was the finest by far that we have played this season. I think the performance by Chris Mullin and Walter Berry (22 points and 12 rebounds) was just marvelous."
Sunday, St. John's will play for the regional title against North Carolina State, a 61-55 winner over Alabama.
That game, too, was much closer than the six-point margin indicated. And, again, free throws down the stretch made the difference.
Alabama Coach Wimp Sanderson said: "If any one thing cost us the game, it was free-throw shots. . . . Some of those we missed were the front end of one-and-ones.."
Alabama, which shot 70.6% from the line this season, made just 9 of 18 Friday night.
North Carolina State was ahead by three points with 1:02 to play when Alabama's Bobby Lee Hurt went to the line to shoot a one-and-one. He missed the front end.
But with 45 seconds to play, Terry Conor made two free throws for Alabama to make it a two-point game, and it was Spud Webb of North Carolina State who then missed the front of a one-and-one.
North Carolina State put the game away as Bennie Bolton, Webb and Russell Pierre all made both ends of one-and-ones in the final seconds.
North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano called it a "gutty effort" on the part of his team. "They were taking away our inside stuff until Terry (Gannon) and Bolton started hitting.)
Shooting from outside, Gannon was 4-for-4.
Sanderson said: "I've been at Alabama longer than the President's Mansion--and it was burned down during the Civil War--and I'll say this: This team didn't win the most games that have ever been won at Alabama, but it's the best Alabama basketball team that we've ever had."