U of L fans roared as they watched the Cardinals demolish their archrival 81-63. Many in the crowd exchanged high fives, hugged, screamed and danced while players threw down highlight-reel dunks, coaches urged on their troops and hundreds of thousands of fans across the nation tuned into the action on TV.
After the game, the talk was about the Cardinals' resurgence as a national power. Or about the 100th year of the storied UK program. Or about the sheer excitement associated with one of college sports' most fierce rivalries.
Few discussed the fact that this event almost never happened.
Nor did they note the 20th anniversary of one of the most important sporting contests in U of L's--and the commonwealth's--history.
March 26, 2003, marks the 20th anniversary of the Dream Game, the 1983 Mideast Regional championship that pitted two of the nation's top programs against each other for a spot in the NCAA Final Four.
But more was at stake when the teams took the floor at Stokely Athletic Center in Knoxville, Tenn.
This was a game that Louisville Coach Denny Crum and his fans craved, a game that Kentucky's Joe B. Hall and UK avoided.
"I can't tell you how much more the game meant to U of L than to UK," says Billy Reed. Then sports editor of The Courier-Journal, Reed incurred the wrath of UK's coaches and fans for advocating a series between the two schools. "Had UK won that game they probably would never have played (the series)."
The two teams had not played since 1959, when Peck Hickman's unranked Cardinals knocked off Adolph Rupp's second-ranked Wildcats 76-61 in the Mideast Regional semifinals on the way to U of L's first Final Four.
Kentucky was the dynasty, the traditionally dominant player on the national scene for decades. The Wildcats claimed five NCAA championships, had produced dozens of All-America players and secured their place in college basketball's pantheon.
Louisville was the upstart, a successful program in its own right that started regularly crashing the NCAA party in the 1970s. Only three years earlier the Cardinals had finally won their first NCAA championship.
"I don't think UK wanted to recognize that our program was on a competitive scale with theirs," Crum says. "They certainly didn't want the media to recognize that."
The teams had nearly met on a couple of occasions. In 1975, both reached the NCAA's Final Four. U of L lost in overtime to top-ranked UCLA 75-74 in the semifinals; Kentucky fell to the Bruins 92-85 two nights later.
In 1982, Kentucky needed only to beat 11th-seeded Middle Tennessee State University in the tournament's first round to earn a matchup with third-seeded Louisville. The Wildcats fell in a huge upset, 50-44. U of L then pummeled Middle 81-56 on the way to its second Final Four in four years.
"I really thought (that year) we were ready to play," says Charles Jones, a 6-8 center for the Cards. "We were disappointed when they lost to Middle Tennessee State."
By 10ths of a Second
Those near misses set the stage for the 1982-83 season, when both teams would be loaded with top players and both had their sights set on a national title.
Each also had an outstanding season that year. Louisville rolled into the NCAA tournament as the Midwest Region's first-seed with a 29-3 record. Kentucky, the third seed, had stumbled late in the year but entered the tournament at 21-7.
Both won relatively easy first-round games, U of L beating Tennessee 70-57 and Kentucky whipping Ohio University 57-40. Those wins propelled them into the regional semifinals in Knoxville.
Media started to buzz about the potential game. Fans started to talk about possible matchups. Hotels began to prepare for a flood of Cards and Cats fans.
But the Dream Game was still one game away, and both teams had huge obstacles to overcome.
UK had to play a traditional rival, Bobby Knight's second-seeded Indiana Hoosiers, which already had beaten the Cats earlier that year. U of L faced fourth-seeded Arkansas, which in previous tournaments seemed to have the Cards' number. When the two last met in 1981, U.S. Reed stopped U of L's title run by hitting a 50-foot shot at the buzzer.
Finally, the basketball gods looked favorably on the Kentucky schools.
In the semifinals on Thursday night, Kentucky dispatched IU 64-59. Now the ball was in Louisville's court. The players and coaches began to feel the excitement.
Crum tried to downplay the possibility. Instead he told his team they had to focus on Arkansas.
But when the game started, the Razorbacks proved more ready to play. Arkansas jumped all over the Cardinals, using a 16-0 run to build a 35-19 lead. By halftime, though, the Cards had managed to cut the lead to 10.
With thousands of fans--many in blue--cheering them on, the Cardinals whittled away at the lead throughout the second half. The score was tied 63-63 when Crum called time out with 13 seconds left.
When play resumed, guard Milt Wagner drove through the lane and took a fadeaway jump shot. The ball caromed off the rim, was tapped once--then again--and finally fell into the hands of forward Scooter McCray. McCray shot, missed, then grabbed his rebound and laid the ball in as the final buzzer sounded.
By 10ths of a second, the Dream Game was on.
"At that moment," Jones says, "we were more into winning that game. But only for a moment.
"As soon as it was over, we started thinking about what was next."
What was next was a two-day party. Media accounts talk of fans from both schools flooding Knoxville, eager to be part of history as the city's hotels, restaurants and bars were preparing for violence. Tickets had been selling for only $5 to $10 on the streets before Thursday night's games. Now they were commanding upwards of $300.
Meanwhile the coaches and players tried to stay calm and focus on the game rather than the hoopla.
"Everywhere we went, people wanted to talk about it," Jones recalls. "Coach Crum wanted us to relax. He told us to get out in the hotel lobby and talk to our fans. He wanted us to enjoy it."
"The kids were aware of the importance of that game," Crum says. "First, it was an opportunity to play Kentucky and to get the bragging rights that went with that.
Second, the winner got to go to the Final Four.
"That was getting lost in the shuffle."
By Saturday afternoon, tension was thick. CBS had zeroed in on the game. For fans on both sides the taunting was replaced by gut-wrenching anxiety over a contest only moments away.
Stokely Center was packed to the rafters, thousands of blue-and-white clad fans seated next to those in red and black. Politicians, business leaders, local celebrities and everyday fans turned out in their team's colors. Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, trying to be neutral, wore a suit that was red on one side, blue on the other.
"This was probably the most important game ever for the entire state of Kentucky," Jones says. "The weight of the state was on the shoulders of the players and coaches."
Then, in what is arguably the most celebrated moment of the entire event, the cheerleaders from both schools locked arms and led the crowd in singing My Old Kentucky Home. The scene sent chills through thousands of fans, even causing some generally callous reporters to tear up. For one brief moment the entire arena joined as one.
And then it was on.
From the opening tip it was war. Louisville fell behind quickly. The shooting of guard Jim Master and forward Derrick Hord bolted UK to a 15-6 lead, then 23-10. "I knew they would be tough," Crum says of that Wildcats team. "Their players were as good as any in the country."
Still, the Cards never panicked. Brothers Scooter and Rodney McCray began to take over inside, scoring six of Louisville's next eight baskets. Charles Jones' lay-up cut UK's halftime lead to seven, 37-30.
Crum felt U of L had begun to take control. At halftime, "He told us not to worry about it," Jones says. "He said 'Let's go out there and play ball.' "
"There were no Knute Rockne speeches," Crum says. "The incentive was there."
UK once again jumped on the Cardinals at the start of the second half. Center Melvin Turpin's hook shot gave UK a 43-32 lead with 16:38 left in the game.
Then the Cardinals took over.
In less than two minutes U of L outscored the Cats 12-2, cutting the lead to one point. The teams then traded baskets until a similar flurry put U of L up five, 58-53. UK fought back, tying the game at 60 each with just over three minutes left.
Neither team scored during that time until, finally, UK guard Dirk Minniefield drove for a certain layup. Jones soared across the lane and tipped the shot away from the goal toward Scooter McCray. He fired a pass to his brother, who then fed Lancaster Gordon for a short jump shot and a 62-60 Cardinals lead. Only eight seconds remained.
UK refused to quit. The Cats got the ball to Master, who nailed a 12-foot jump shot with less than a second left.
The Dream Game was going to overtime.
By this point, the tension was nearly unbearable. U of L President Donald Swain's wife, Lavinia, had to leave the arena. The wife of another U of L administrator fainted and had to be escorted from the building.
They missed a show that, even today, is considered by many the best five minutes in U of L basketball history.
As UK's Master said after the game, "It was like a cavalry charge."
The Cards took control from the tip. Gordon hit a baseline jumper for a 64-62 lead, which he followed with an 8-foot jump shot. Jones contributed two free throws. Guard Milt Wagner hit a layup, then two free throws, threw down an exclamation-point dunk and drilled another two free throws to cap a 14-0 run. Two more dunks by--Gordon and Wagner--and three late Kentucky baskets led to a surprisingly lopsided final score, 80-68.
U of L had shot an unbelievable 81.5 percent during the second half and overtime and had been perfect in the extra period, hitting all six of its field goal attempts and all six free throws.
And on defense?
"They were all over the floor," said UK guard Dicky Beal. "They were just everywhere."
The U of L community erupted. In Knoxville, fans roared while players cut down the nets. Gordon, the regional MVP, stood on a ladder holding the rim with one hand. In the other was a sign that said, "Cardinals Best in State."
In Louisville, fans rushed from the Cardinals' Inn out into the streets near campus. Students dangled from telephone poles and street signs. Fans drove throughout the city, hanging out car windows, honking their horns and waving flags.
In Lexington the UK players arrived to hundreds of fans, still supporting their team no matter the outcome.
Once the dust settled, U of L began preparing for the Final Four. A week later, the team would face mighty Houston, also known as Phi Slamma Jamma. In what has since been billed a landmark game for college basketball, future NBA superstar Akeem (now Hakeem) Olajuwon destroyed the Cards with a 21-point, 22-rebound performance as Houston won 94-81.
Back in Kentucky the governor, legislators and even the boards of trustees of U of L and UK began to talk about a series between the schools. Shortly after, they announced that they would begin playing each other.
The U of L-UK series was born.
"I'm really gratified that the series has worked out," Reed says. "The sportsmanship has been high. The national media has continued to be interested. UK hasn't lost any fans--in fact, it's probably more popular now than ever.
"It's been good for everyone."
"It was simply good for basketball," adds Crum. "The impact it has on young kids, the interest created by the game, it's good for everyone. Even the kids who never go on to play basketball have something to work toward and something to look forward to."
Since that game, the teams have met 20 times. UK has won 13, U of L, 7. And the success of Rick Pitino's Cardinals and Tubby Smith's Wildcats has many fans hoping for one more Dream Game in the NCAA tournament.
Can't happen, says Jones.
"There have been some great games over the years," he says, "but none so big. So much was at stake, and the winner went to the Final Four.
"There was only one--the original--Dream Game."