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    Photo courtesy University of Louisville Men’s Basketball Facebook Page
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    Thirty-five years ago, this month, number 35 (a.k.a. Darrell Griffith) led the University of Louisville men’s basketball team to its first-ever NCAA championship.

    This month we’re going to take a look back at the Cardinals’ magical season, particularly their NCAA Tournament run.

    U of L, which was coming off a 24-8 campaign in the 1978-79 season, was ranked 10th in the Associated Press preseason poll in the fall of ‘79. The Cards returned three starters - Griffith, Scooter McCray and Tony Branch - and three key reserves - Derek Smith, Roger Burkman and Jerry Eaves - from a team that lost to Arkansas, 73-62, in the NCAA Sweet 16 the season before. Louisville had also lost starters Bobby Turner (academics) and Larry Williams (graduation), the team’s second- and third-leading scorers, from the ‘79 squad too.

    Despite those losses, confidence was high. Griffith, the city schoolboy legend from Male High School who promised “championships” upon his commitment, was returning for his senior season and the Final Four was going to be just up Interstate 65 in Indianapolis.

    “The ‘Ville is going to the ‘Nap,” sophomore swingman Poncho Wright, an Indianapolis native, declared after a preseason scrimmage.

    U of L began the season with six straight wins. The Cards edged South Alabama, 75-73, in their season-opener and won 77-75 at Tennessee in their third game. In the latter, however, McCray (who had averaged 10.1 points and a team-best 3.1 assists per game in ‘78-79) suffered a season-ending knee injury. Coach Denny Crum had a capable replacement for McCray, though - his younger brother, Rodney was a freshman on the team.

    With the younger McCray in the starting lineup, Louisville won its next three games by double-digits, including a 75-65 win over then-No. 2 Ohio State (which featured future NBA big man Herb Williams and everyone’s favorite CBS analyst, Clark Kellogg) on Dec. 19 in Freedom Hall.

    Three days later, though, U of L fell 71-69 at Utah to Tom Chambers and the Utes on the team’s way out to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic. In the Aloha State, the Cards won their first game, beating Princeton 64-53, before losing to Illinois 77-64 four days after Christmas.

    After the loss to the Fighting Illini, however, Louisville won its next 18 games in a row.

    Back home, the Cards opened the New Year with 20- and 12-point victories over Tulsa and Kansas State before beginning Metro Conference play.

    Louisville ran roughshod through the league, sweeping all 12 of its regular-season Metro games by an average victory margin of 12.8 points. The Cards’ closest conference game was a 56-54 win at Virginia Tech on Feb. 11. A week later they beat the Hokies again, 77-72 in Freedom Hall, to rise to No. 2 in the nation. U of L was rolling.

    Then, however, came the Cards’ penultimate game of the regular season. On Feb. 21 they suffered a surprising 77-60 loss at Iona (which featured big man Jeff Ruland and was coached by one Jim Valvano) on national television. That setback galvanized the team.

    U of L bounced back with an 83-75 win at Florida State in its regular-season finale, then won two games the following week - beating Memphis 84-65 and the Seminoles for the third time, 81-72 - to take the Metro Conference Tournament.

    Despite a 28-3 record, and having won the Metro’s regular-season and postseason titles, the Cards were somewhat surprisingly made a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were placed in the Midwest Region, opposite No. 1 seed Louisiana State, the Southeastern Conference Tournament champ. Still, thanks to its seeding, Louisville received a first-round bye in the field of 48. U of L’s first tournament game would be in Lincoln, Neb. against the winner between seventh-seeded Kansas State and 10th-seeded Arkansas. And, that’s where we’ll pick up next time.  

    Photo courtesy University of Louisville Men’s Basketball Facebook Page

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