Date story was published: November 27, 1983
They'd faced Sampson at his zenith, Akeem at his most lordly, Ewing at his terrifying best. But never had Lancaster Gordon and Milt Wagner, acclaimed the land's grandest backcourt, been so unnerved, accomplished so little. Last night, before Kentucky's unbending will, Louisville's golden guards were a grand illusion.
Together, Gordon and Wagner missed 15 of 21 shots, scored but a dozen points, guided the Cardinals into patterns of no return. Take away its guards, and U of L's just another bunch from the neighborhood. Take away its guards, and Louisville loses 65-44.
What happened? "They beat us,"
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said Gordon, smiling thinly. What else? "Their defense. They forced us out of our offense. They played us."
Yes. Entering Dream Game II, some questioned whether UK, tall across the front line, less than swift across the back, could guard anybody one-on-one. The answer arrived last night, special delivery, and it clearly rocked the Cardinals to their core.
The Wildcats took Gordon and Wagner, who had combined for 42 points in Dream Game I, straight up. No gimmick chasers or boxes. Just Jim Master on Wagner, Roger Harden on Gordon. And those rare occasions when a Card guard shook loose, there was always help from underneath.
"Great defense," said Wagner, mouthing no excuses. "They keyed on Lancaster and me more this game, and they made us force a lot of shots, go up off-balance. They just outplayed us."
By halting Gordon and Wagner, the Wildcats effectively skewed Louisville's entire attack. While UK roared through its 26-4 first-half surge, the Cardinals' offense was reduced to a splay-legged jumper and a prayer. U of L's guards ended the half two for 13, one basket for each.
"When you play a good team," said Jeff Hall, Louisville's third guard, ''they're gonna try to take your strength away from you. Kentucky made that known early. They put constant defensive pressure on us, good hard-nosed man- to-man pressure."
And that was that. With Gordon and Wagner flailing aimlessly, the Cardinals had no chance. Louisville's front line, stocked with inexperience and outsized by UK's monsters, wasn't expected to hold up its end. For U of L to have won -- nay, to have come close -its guards had to inhale Kentucky's. Instead, Wagner and Gordon got chewed up, spit out, banished to the bench shaking their heads.
"I think they got rattled a little bit," said Master, who proclaimed the game his defensive apogee. "We'd watched film on 'em, and we knew exactly what they'd try to do. Milt was gonna post me up, and to be honest, I just beat him to his spots."
Soon, the Cardinals had no spots left, and the single remaining question was how big UK's payback would be. Answer: The second-biggest in Denny Crum's 12- year tenure at Louisville. In '80-'81, North Carolina thrashed U of L by 22 points. Last night was bad, no question. Still, Louisville's players maintained, it won't be fatal.
"No, I'm never embarrassed," Hall said. "You're gonna get beat sometimes, and sometimes you're gonna get beat bad. They were better than us. They deserved to win. But I guarantee we'll find things to learn from."
Lesson No. 1: The need for an alternative power source. Gordon and Wagner, splendid as they are, cannot carry a team to the Final Four. The Cardinals must develop an inside scorer -- Charles Jones, Billy Thompson, anybody -- if this year's model is to play with the Kentuckys of the world.
"Right, right," Hall said. "Coach Crum's been telling us that all along. I think we'll listen a little more closely now."
Lesson No. 2: The necessity of keeping last night's debacle in context. One game, however rotten, doesn't quash a season. Indeed, Kentucky was supposed to win. Not by 21 points, no, but in Rupp, in November or December, these things can happen. That it did in a contest of such magnitude shouldn't impel Louisville to drop the sport.
"I look at everything as a learning experience," Gordon said. "This is one game of many. I'm always talking the long run, not the here and now. The only time the here and now counts is in the tournament."
"That's exactly right," Wagner said. "Our execution wasn't good, but we've got a lot of young players. It'll come. We can't let one game get us down. I know we'll be in the thick of it at the end of the year."
Perhaps. But seldom, maybe never, will the going be so thick as it was last night. Kentucky was that good. Louisville's guards, the hope and alleged salvation, were not.