Date story was published: Sunday, March 25, 1984
Because Kentucky did not rattle, the Wildcats will battle in Seattle.
UK made the Final Four yesterday, beating -- make that surviving -- Illinois 54-51 at Rupp Arena. The Cats play the West Regional champion Saturday in one of the semifinals in Seattle. Georgetown and Dayton play today to decide the West winner.
But before the Wildcats could escape the Mideast Regional, they had to endure the kind of testing that either makes contenders or unmasks pretenders.
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Illinois, which was weaned in the rugged Big Ten, wasn't pretending either, as evidenced by its knockdown (three Cats were injured), drag-out style, if style is the word. Illinois used it in the form of a man- to-man defense to take away much of UK's vaunted inside game.
But, ironically, when this "basket-brawl" game was on the line, it was Sam Bowie, UK's famous former invalid, who rode to the rescue.
"I wanted to put myself in a situation where I could be the hero or the goat," said Bowie, who sat out the past two seasons because of a stress fracture and seven critical seconds at the end yesterday because someone stepped on his left ankle.
Heroic, Bowie was.
After "merely" holding Illinois' leading scorer, Efrem Winters, to three points and zero rebounds in the first half, Bowie got downright offensive himself down the stretch.
The 7-foot-1 senior scored all 11 of his points and
grabbed 10 of his game-high 14 rebounds in the second half.
Most important were the seven points Bowie scored in a four-minute span of the second half that helped repel the relentless Illini. Those points, all of which counterpunched Illinois baskets, included:
* A free throw with 8:32 remaining that inched UK ahead 41-36;
* A tap-in that concluded one of numerous mad scrambles for rebounds (UK had 43, Illinois 38);
* Two free throws after being fouled as he wheeled toward the hoop on the low post (UK 45-40);
* Two more free throws when he was fouled reaching for a rebound (UK 49, Illinois 44).
And when the Illinois full-court press, responsible for holding 17 regular- season opponents to 50 points or less, began, it was Bowie who acted as if he had already forwarded his luggage to Seattle.
When Illinois trailed by three (49-46) and had the ball, Bowie blocked Winters' baseline jumper.
When the undaunted Illini closed to within two (50-48) and got UK to turn it over on a 10-second violation, it was Bowie who rebounded Bruce Douglas' jumper from the top of the key.
"Sam Bowie just took over in the second half," said an admiring Dicky Beal.
Jim Master said the same sentiment in a single word: "Whew!"
But by no means did Bowie do it alone.
Beal, who was named the regional's most valuable player, crossed up Illinois' trapping defense by free-lancing a layup when UK was apparently stalling. That shot gave UK a 52-48 lead with 43 seconds remaining.
When Illinois responded with a basket, it was Beal's two free throws that clinched the victory (UK's 29th in 33 games) with 14 seconds remaining.
"We couldn't win," said Lou Henson afterward.
But it wasn't the gutty performances of Bowie and Beal that sparked the Illinois coach's comment.
Henson wondered if Kentucky, the proud possessor of one of the finest college basketball traditions, got a Final Four berth the old-fashioned way. Did UK earn it?
"We had no chance under the conditions presented here," Henson said. "We played good enough ball to win. We thought we played pretty well. With a break here and there, we could have won the trip to Seattle.
"Until the last five seconds of the game, the fouls called in the second half numbered 11 against us and two against Kentucky."
Actually, that was the foul count with 14 seconds remaining. After Beal's free throws, UK took advantage of its few fouls to waste three and make the precise Illini restart their offense the same number of times.
"You're not going to bait me into criticizing officials," UK Coach Joe Hall said when asked about Henson's complaints. ''Officiating is always open to criticism from both teams."
As nettlesome as those fouls were to Henson, the Illini were enraged by what they felt was a walk that Beal got away with in the final seconds. UK's sparkplug guard was being hounded by Douglas as he dribbled upcourt with UK leading 52-50.
When Beal crossed midcourt and picked up his dribble, he appeared to drag his pivot foot. But a split-second later, when Douglas reached for the ball, he was whistled for a foul.
"I had all ball," Douglas protested. "There were definitely a lot of questionable calls. That might be because they're at home and we're on the road."
Beal's clinching free throws made the non-call even more dramatic.
Asked if he had walked, Beal said: "Uh, the refs just, uh, it was just a good call. Everything was all right as things turned out."
Illinois, which finished at 26-5, got a lift from the start when Winters, who had suffered what was considered a badly sprained ankle in Thursday's semifinals, started and won the tip from Bowie.
Playing the tight man-to-man defense they had made a reputation on this season, the Illini held UK's big men in check and never trailed by more than five.
"Awesome," Hall said of the Illini defenders.
"They stopped about everything we tried. They sure did exhaust a lot of options. They were able to stop us inside and deserve all the credit in the world.
"As far as our players are concerned, that just makes me have to compliment them more because they won against a good ballclub in a well-played game."
UK, faced with disrupting Illinois' pattern offense, started in a man-to-man. But, instead of subjecting his bigger players to chasing Illinois' three- guard offense, Hall switched to a 2-3 zone with more than 10 minutes remaining in the first half.
The Cats stayed in either a 2-3 or a 1-3-1 zone throughout the rest of the game.
Doug Altenberger and Quinn Richardson bombed away from outside. The two combined for 29 points, 19 in the second half.
While the two teams battled away, the effects were telling. Kenny Walker went down with 9:48 remaining in the first half. Walker strained his right achilles tendon when a player fell on his leg.
Beal crumbled under the UK basket when he accidentally caught a Bowie elbow over his right eye with 6:52 left in the game. Less than a minute later (at 6:13), he was back.
Bowie's left ankle was stepped on with 14 seconds remaining.
Although Beal's two free throws seemed to clinch it, Bowie was rushed back into the game with seven seconds remaining when Altenberger was fouled in the act of shooting.
Altenberger made the first free throw. His second missed, but Winters tapped it out to Richardson.
Richardson whipped a pass to Altenberger, who launched a 30-footer. Teammate George Montgomery caught the shot and seemed to flip it in before the buzzer, although it would not have changed the outcome of the game even if it had counted.
If Henson needed one more call with which to disagree, he got it.
"Did it count? Yes, in my estimation, it counted," the Illini coach said. "That was an example of the sort of calls that went the other way, went against us, in this game."