Once a year the observer’s livelihood requires that he transport his butt to Las Vegas for the annual trade show of the national association that employs him as a consultant. Fun city? Maybe, if he weren’t working 10 to 12 hours a day, rushing to meetings between non-stop rush throngs of people, and getting abused by slot machines during rare breaks between duties.
Time was precious, Internet access $14.99 a day, forcing Card Game down the priority list. The five days are mostly a blur. Never so happy to get back to Louisville.
One of the rewarding things during the trip was the growing recognition of the success of the UofL athletic program. The observer wears Cardinal gear, of course, He was frequently engaged by strangers in airport terminals, on flights, hotel lobbies, casino floors and elsewhere by people wanting to chat about UofL winning the NCAA basketball championship. Some recalling UofL’s win over Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Others noting UofL’s upcoming entry into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A couple of years ago, people would ask if the Cardinal logo was for the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team or the Arizona Cardinals football team. This time around they were asking about the University of Louisville. National recognition was never so apparent.
A Michigan State fan on the flight home was especially grateful that UofL had defeated arch rival Michigan during the final game. “Louisville was really a fun team to watch, the embodiment of what people want to see in college athletics,” he said.
A game not unlike some of the five losses the University of Louisville basketball team has incurred this season, a rugged Wichita State team clogging up the middle, making life especially difficult for Peyton Siva and Russ Smith.
Miraculous performances from two unlikely sources and in the least expected ways, providing hope, inspiration, staving off what was beginning to look inevitable.
Tim Henderson, a walk on, providing the inspiration, stopping the runaway, making a comeback possible. Wide open in the corner, take the shots or get benched. Who was that? Tim Henderson, doing his Kyle Kuric imitation from the corner, ruffling the nets with two consecutive three-pointers.
Future Naismith Hall of Famer Rick Pitino yelling in his ear, “Knock it down, Tim. Knock it down, Tim.” Always the encourager that Pitino.
No room for error, those shots had to go in, or UofL might have been back in Louisville Monday night. Slashing a 12-point deficit to a mere six points, 47-41 with 12:22 to go.
Stepping up next will be Chane Behanan, emerging from wherever he has been during the tournament, he with with 52% free throw percentage, hitting four straight free throws, later finding his jump shot again, and Louisville is within two at 55-53.
The Tim and Chane show then gives way to an absolutely awe-inspiring performance.
What it was was what Rick Pitino has been anticipating from Luke Hancock since he transferred from George Mason University two years ago.
The stubble-faced junior, looking bigger, stronger and more savvy every game, would find himself open after one of those rare Wichita State turnovers, stop and pop at the three-point, putting UofL ahead, 56-55, reclaiming the lead after trailing for 17 minutes.
Taking lessons perhaps from Smith and Siva, Hancock goes to work in the middle, with those impossible layups that are integral to UofL’s offense while burying them from deep as well, collecting 13 of his 20 points in the final five minutes. Deceptively quick, deadly accurate with the game on the line every trip down court.
Russ Smith, though he would accumulate a team-leading 21 points, getting what even he would admit was an off-game out of his system. Even he a bit intimidated by the drama, the crowd of 74,000 people at the Georgia Dome, an uncertain look in his eyes, missing his first four free throws, hitting only five of 12 for the game, and committing five turnovers. Should be out of his system by Monday night.
Peyton Siva, with another game-against-Syracuse-like performance, managing only one of nine shooting while making only three assists and committing two turnovers. Wichita State shutting down the lanes, closing the gate on him. Syracuse is out, Peyton, do well.
Gorgui Dieng, with the same look he had during last year’s semifinal game, bothered by all the hoopla and Wichita bulk, unable to breathe or move without getting jostled on offense or having a whistle blown on him on defense. Should be getting used to the big stage by now. He’s always working on his weaknesses and will figure it out the next couple of days.
Chane Behanan taking up the rebounding slack for Gorgui (who had seven), using his muscle and bulk underneath, corralling a game-leading nine retrievals, showing why Pitino keeps him in there with his continuing offensive challenges. Did we mention that he had four-of-four free throws?
Montrezl Harrell again providing some offensive punch in Behanan’s absence, hitting all four of his field goal attempts. He also had four rebounds in his 11 minutes of playing time, always ready to go, always providing extended bursts of energy and enthusiasm.
Wayne Blackshear may be saving his best for another day. Let’s hope so anyway.
Kevin Ware was still very much involved, of course, seemingly praying at times, shielding his eyes at others, wanting to get out on the court, standing at the end, getting in some unexpected physical therapy, savoring the moment.
UofL is back, back in the NCAA Championship game, having survived a serious struggle, maybe gotten a bad one out of its system. Nobody said it would be easy. Get some rest, have some fun, and resume breathing.
Twenty-seven years is a long wait. Two more nights could be an eternity.
The University of Louisville is far from alone in having ended the basketball season on a downer.
Louisville coaches, players and fans will cherish the surprising eight-game win streak that followed the regular season. But the final loss to Kentucky was the ultimate disappointment. Losing to a program whose fans take almost as much pleasure in denying its arch rival a shot as it does in getting to the championship game itself. Witness the chaos in Lexington following the win over UofL.
There are 345 Division I men’s basketball teams. Of that number, only 70 made it to the NCAA Basketball Tournament. The one team that Louisville fans most wanted to get eliminated is one of only two left standing with a chance to win the championship. Forty minutes away from rewarding an insufferable fan base with the ultimate prize, an eighth NCAA championship.
For some reason, Rick Pitino presumes to speak for the U of L fan base declaring, “Louisville will be rooting for Kentucky … In every society there are people without brains. But for those that have brains, they get along, they root for each other.”
One has to believe the post-season excitement has gone to Pitino’s head, having earned his way back into the good graces of fans the last three weeks. Saying things that might go over in a Utopia but almost never in real life, and certainly not for many who put the Ville first.
A segment of the Louisville fan base may be rooting for UK but almost as many will be pulling against them. Still another segment won’t tune into the game, fearing the worst.
Thirty years ago this Saturday a young fan at Freedom Hall was unable to sit still any longer,Â jumping to his feet, standing on his seat, hopping down, running around, waving his arms.
People seated around him weren’t sure what to think at first, someone from their midst getting emotionally involved. Using his arms and hands to spell out C-A-R-D-S. Who is that guy anyway?
The crowd was energized like never before. A tradition was born.
Rob Hickerson was the fan and the game was against South Alabama, the first game of the season that would wind up with the University of Louisville basketball team cutting down the nets at Indianapolis with the first NCAA championship.
Hickerson, now in the mortgage department at Fifth Third Bank, plans to observe the 30th anniversary this Saturday. The opponent is the same school, South Alabama.
He will celebrate from his new location in Section 311 by doing what he does best, leading the C-A-R-D-S cheer.
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Don’t look now but it’s already time for the University of Louisville-Kentucky rivalry to be renewed in basketball. The women’s teams will play Sunday at 2 p.m. at the KFC Yum! Center. It’s “Pack The House” day, and a capacity crowd is expected.
UK is 5-0, including a win over Notre Dame, but the Lady Cards (4-3) have a score to settle after a humiliating 101-67 loss in Lexington last season.