LSU Is the Top Cat at Last After Upset of Kentucky, 59-57
Love. Food. Meditation. Neboisha Bukumirovich. A “freak” defense. A kid who drives a fertilizer truck. A frontal lobotomy. You name it, Dale Brown was prepared to try it if Louisiana State could beat Kentucky in a game of basketball, just once.
So, LSU threw everything but the locker-room sink at the Kentuckians Saturday at the Omni. And sure enough, LSU finally got the best of them, 59-57, after failing to do so three times previously this season, to take the NCAA Southeast Regional and qualify for the Final Four.
Sophomore center Ricky Blanton made a lay-up with 15 seconds remaining to put LSU ahead by four, and Kentucky, after cutting the difference to two, could do no more than get off a half-court heave by James Blackmon that clanked against the side of the rim.
The 11-time losers from Baton Rouge had done it. They had made it to the Final Four for the first time since Indiana Coach Bobby Knight slam-dunked one of their fans into a hotel garbage can at the Philadelphia tournament of 1981. They had made it this time by upsetting four fine teams--Purdue, Memphis State, Georgia Tech and Kentucky.
“The fact that we beat Kentucky to make the Final Four doesn’t matter, except that I’m glad they didn’t beat us four times,” Brown said. “Other than that, I wouldn’t care if we beat St. Leo’s Elementary School to make it.”
Still, the Tigers definitely were sick of the Kentucky Wildcats having them by the tail. They always felt that, cat for cat, they were just as good. Even after Eddie Sutton’s Southeastern Conference champions improved their record to 32-3 here Thursday by whipping Alabama for the fourth time, the LSU players refused to swallow Wildcat forward Winston Bennett’s claim that “we don’t believe in the law of averages.”
“They may say they don’t believe, but it was in the back of their minds,” said LSU forward Don Redden, the senior who drives a fertilizer truck in Monroe, La., during the summer and who was voted outstanding player of the regional. “They were worried. I could see it in their eyes.”
Nervous or not, the Wildcats were never able to shake the Tigers in a superbly played game. Except for an early burst led by All-American forward Kenny Walker that put Kentucky in front, 11-4, neither team led by more than four points at any time. Holding Walker to one basket on three shots in the second half was one way LSU kept it tight.
There had been four Southeastern Conference schools among the NCAA’s sweet 16, but the Tigers (25-11) will represent the SEC by themselves when they go to Dallas for Friday’s semifinal date with Louisville. They won’t have the best talent or best record, but as Kentucky’s Sutton said, “They sure are playing with a lot of confidence.”
A couple of months ago, this LSU outfit had a record of 14-0 and looked capable of beating anybody. This was after 7-foot Tito Horford, the hot high school prospect, had left campus. But it was before 7-foot Zoran Jovanovich from Yugoslavia turned an ankle. It was before leading scorer and rebounder Nikita Wilson flunked out. It was before sophomore stud John Williams and other players were bedridden for a week with chicken pox.
LSU lost 11 of its next 19 games.
“But we stuck together,” Dale Brown said. “We dared to love each other. If that sounds drippy, I don’t apologize.”
Nor did he apologize for his outgoing--some would say manic--manner, which led to one Louisville sportswriter’s recently published remark that the LSU coach could use a frontal lobotomy. “Hey, I’ll take my lobotomy after Dallas,” Brown said. “Whatever it takes to win this thing.”
No one too disturbed could have thought up the “freak” defense--his word for it--that LSU has used to get this far. Difficult to describe, it involves disguising your defense so that the opposition has trouble figuring what you are doing. For instance, the Tigers might pretend they are in a 2-3 zone, only to break off a few seconds later into a box-and-one.
Brown was ready to try anything. He even called for 6-4 sophomore Bukumirovich, one of his two recruits from Belgrade, when starting guard Derrick Taylor started struggling. Taylor, who had scored 23 points in the win over Georgia Tech, was 0 for 9 shooting Saturday.
Then there was Blanton. He is a 6-6, 225-pound, shaggy-haired sophomore who wears a mouthpiece when he plays--"It makes him look like Louie Armstrong,” Brown said--and has played everything from guard to center this season.
He became a hero, to long be remembered as the man who won the Kentucky game, by scoring 12 points--his average is 6.1--by clearing 8 rebounds and mostly by being in the right place at the right time when Redden fed him with 15 seconds to play.
What happened was this: Walker, who closed his wonderful college career with 20 points, sank two free throws with 1:19 left to slice LSU’s lead to 57-55. LSU called time and discussed what to do in the 45 seconds it would have on the NCAA’s new shot clock.
But Ed Davender of Kentucky made the mistake of fouling with 44 seconds left. The shot clock was turned off. LSU could take its time.
Sutton told the Wildcats to try for 15 seconds to steal the ball, then foul. They waited too long. Anthony Wilson found Redden alone on the baseline. Redden drove. “I was going to take it to the hole,” he said. Then, just as the defense recovered, Redden saw Blanton materialize beneath the hoop. He passed to him for the lay-up.
Kentucky scored quickly, then fouled LSU’s leading scorer of the game, Williams, with three seconds left. Williams missed. But as Brown watched with folded hands--"I was praying! No, I was meditating!” the coach said--Blackmon’s desperation shot failed.
“Blanton was the big surprise,” Sutton said afterward.
Redden, who added 15 points to the 27 he scored Thursday, sat next to Blanton later and said: “If I had my druthers, this guy would be MVP. I get tired of guarding this sucker in practice, let me tell you.
“I’m just glad he stoked up at the pregame meal,” Redden added. “The way he eats, he’d still be at the table if we didn’t have a game to play.”
How much did he eat?
“Aw, just the usual,” Blanton said. “Eggs, steaks. . . . “
“Anything, as long as it wasn’t nailed down,” Brown said.
“Anything, as long as it doesn’t eat him ,” Redden said.
After Blanton made the big shot, he went skipping down the court, dancing and waving his arms in the air. “That might have been premature, huh?” he said later. “Kentucky beat us twice before on last-second shots. But I had to do something .”
“You’ve got to excuse us if we do some celebrating,” Redden said. “This team has definitely paid its dues.”
Said Brown: “I know what heartbreak Kentucky must be feeling, but I’m glad it’s them and not us.”
He needed another loss to Kentucky like he needed a hole in the head.