Louisville won its first National Collegiate Basketball Championship tonight with four minutes of fabulous basketball, seconds after it appeared ready to fold.
Trailing UCLA, 54-50, with 4:32 left in the game, the Cardinals held the Bruins scoreless the rest of the night and walked off with the title, 59-54, turning UCLA's Cinderella story into a pumpkin almost an hour before midnight.
The key man, the tournament's outstanding player, the man who scored the basket that put Louisville in front for good, was Darrell Griffith, the only senior starter on Denny Crum's team.
"When I came here I said we would win a national championship before I left," Griffith said. "I guess I didn't let anyone down."
When it mattered most, Griffith let no one down. This was a game in which neither team led by more than five points; a game with a first half in which both teams were so tight they looked ready to snap like rubber bands.
At the conclusion, though, it was Griffith -- with a major assist from fellow guard Jerry Eaves -- who made the Cardinals national champions.
UCLA had taken its first, and last, five-point lead with 6:29 left on a transition layup by center Mike Sanders. The crowd of 16,637, most of it for Louisville, was jittery. Griffith was not.
Cutting toward the hoop with Michael Holton right with him, the all-American guard signaled forward Wiley Brown to try a lob pass. Brown complied and Griffith climbed an invisible ladder to take the ball from Holton and dump it in the basket as the beaten Bruin fouled him. The free throw made it 50-48 with 5:57 left.
"It was just our standard 'alley-oop,'" said Griffith, who had announced Sunday that this game would be dedicated to longtime friend Jerry Stringer, fighting cancer. "I thought for a second it was too high, but I got it."
UCLA appeared unfazed by the Griffith play. With 4:32 to go Kiki Vandeweghe, who finished with 14 points, hit a short jumper -- Griffith and Sanders had traded hoops -- and it was 54-50, Bruins. Probably no one in Market Square Arena suspected those were to be UCLA's last points of the season.
The next play was the key to the outcome. As Eaves tried to slide a pass to center Rodney McCray in the middle, Vandeweghe stepped out, deflected the pass and appeared on his way to a layup and a six-point lead.
But Eaves, Louisville's quickest player, sped back and cut in front of Vandeweghe as he prepared to make his move to the hoop. Vandeweghe tried to double-pump and missed badly.
"He (Eaves) just made a super defensive play," Vandeweghe said. "He cut in front of me just when I started to leave my feet and I had to change my direction."
"I really don't know what happened," Eaves said. "I remember cutting past him and the next thing I knew I looked up and Rodney McCray was grabbing the rebound."
Having made the big play defensively, Eaves, who scored all his eight points in the second half, went to work at the other end. After Louisville had held the ball patiently for 40 seconds he took a pass from Griffith and zinged home a 16-footer.
Vandeweghe was short from the corner an UCLA's next possession and Louisville had a chance to tie. Again it was Eaves, this time driving the middle for an underhand push: 54-54 with 2:54 left.
"It wasn't anything conscious like me thinking I had to take up the slack right then or anything," Eaves said. "On the first basket Darrell penetrated and kicked the pass off to me. The second time I just saw an opening and drove."
Now, the young Bruins, who finished 22-10, were losing their poise after holding onto it so long to get here. Rod Foster, the freshman whiz who led UCLA with 16 points, rushed a 20-footer. McCray rebounded. Suddenly, the building was a sea of red shakers.
Griffith wasted no time now. He dribbled to the top of the key and launched a high-arching 15-footer. There was 2:21 on the clock as the ball swished through. The two points were the last of 2,333 the 6-foot-4 -- if that -- sensation scored in his four years at Louisville and, without doubt, he saved the best -- and most important -- for last.
"The kid is just a super player," said UCLA Coach Larry Brown. "We made him work for all his points tonight. Every basket he scored, including that one, was on an athletic move. We gave some of their other guys easy ones, but he worked for everything he got."
Brown called time after the Griffith basket to try to regroup his team. It was no use. Trying to get the ball upcourt against Louisville's pressure, James Wilkes overthrew Holton by six feet.
New Crum sensed the kill. He called time, inserted two more guards and ordered his spread offense. Once the Bruins tied the ball up, but Wiley Brown won the tap. The clock rolled down to 52 seconds and UCLA had to foul. Sanders grabbed Derek Smith. After standing 40 feet away staring at the rim for a moment, Smith swished both shots. It was 58-54.
"I was trying to block everything out, the crowd, the situation, everything," said Smith, one of three starting sophomores on this team. "I just stared the ball over the rim."
That proved to be the coup-de-grace. The teams traded turnovers and Foster had a jumper go in and out. McCray, the first freshman ever to start on a national championship team, pulled his 11th and final rebound. Seconds later he was fouled and made one-of-two.
UCLA had been beaten in a national championship game for the first time in 11 appearances.
"Another record for me," sighed Brown, who all weekend cited the negative statistics he ran up at UCLA during the regular season. "Coach (John) Wooden came into this game and went 10 for 10; I come in my first try and lose.
"I know a week from now I'll be a better man for this experience but right now losing hurts. It hurts a lot."
On the UCLA bench, moments after the end, the tears flowed among players, assistant coaches and managers. Brown was misty-eyed but unbowed, talking softly in each player's ear, then leading his team to the dressing room for one last rendition of its now famous icki-la-ticki-wicki cheer.
For Crum and Louisville there was only ecstasy. After two fruitless appearances in the final four, Crum had finally won the title, and against the school that had beaten him in the semifinals twice in the 1970s.
But it certainly was not easy. After shooting 35 percent the first half, the Cardinals were dressed down by Crum. He told them, according to Eaves, "that we were choking away the national championship."
Just before his team took the court for the final 20 minutes Crum, who said he had never yelled at one of his teams at halftime of an NCAA game before, apologized and thanked his team for a great season.
That team went out and shot 59 percent the second half and won its 33rd of 36 games -- and a championship.
The accomplishment brought Crum a telephone call from President Carter moments after the finish.
But when the 42-year-old coach got to the phone, the line had gone dead. He did not get to speak to the president this night.
"That's okay," Crum said. "We got what we came here for and that's all that matters."