Before Louisiana State routed Wichita State for the NCAA Midwest regional championship today, Tiger all-America forward Durand Macklin was sitting around his hotel room worrying about the game.
After Macklin, a Louisville native, had chewed his last fingernail to the quick, he received a phone call from childhood buddy Darrell Griffith, who told him to get out of the room, relax, find some friends and do something crazy.
Macklin took the advice of Griffith, the most valuable player in last year's NCAA championship game. The LSU senior scored 17 of his 21 points and had nine of 10 rebounds in the first half, as the Tigers advanced to the final four with a 96-85 victory before a crowd of 32,747 in the Louisiana Superdome.
Macklin suffered a dislocation and laceration of the ring finger on his right hand midway through the second half when hit by the ball. He sat on the LSU bench the remainder of the game after getting three stitches on his nonshooting hand.
The 6-foot-7 senion forward, No. 2 scorer in LSU history, said he expects the hand to have healed sufficiently by time the Tigers face Mideast regional winner Indiana Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia.
"This is the happiest moment of my athletic career," LSU Coach Dale Brown said. "But we're still not totally fulfilled yet. There's a little something lacking." Brown said the victory, before a national television audience, allowed the Tigers to achieve the fourth of five goals they set at the start of the season. "The only one left is to win the national championship," he said.
Brown said he wanted to "thank Darrell Griffith for calling and calming down Macklin. From now on," Brown added, "Darrell has our hotel location and a credit card number." It was Griffith, now a member of the NBA's Utah Jazz, who helped eventual champion Louisville beat LSU in the regional final a year ago, 86-66.
"I was surprised to hear Darrell's voice on the phone from Salt Lake City," Macklin said. "He told me to . . . just think we were playing a game of one on one back in Louisville.
"So I went out, found some friends and took my mind off things. It usually take me a few minutes after the game has started to get over being nervous. But he really helped me calm down today."
By the time Macklin left the lineup, the Tigers had demonstrated why they have perhaps the most feared front line in college basketball. With 6-9 senior center Greg Cook making nine of 10 shots and getting seven rebounds, and freshman forward Leonard Mitchell making seven of 12 shots and getting six rebounds, the Shockers were overmatched.
Wichita State might have been able to make the game closer if its 6-9 sophomore forward, Antoine Carr, hadn't committed his third foul with 12 minutes left in the first half. Without Carr, who still scored a game-high 22 points, Wichita State's hopes of stopping LSU rested with 6-8 sophomore Cliff Levingston.
Playing out of position at center, Levingston had 19 points and 10 rebounds, but couldn't contain the LSU starting front line in a four-minute span in the first half when the Tigers outscored WSU, 14-2.
A pair of free throws by Carr gave Wichita State its last lead, 12-11, with 14:10 remaining in the first half. But Macklin made a jumper, and tipped the ball in on the Third Tiger shot. After a Wichita foul, LSU took three shots before Cook tipped the ball in on the third try, giving LSU a 17-12 lead.
"They got eight baskets off offensive rebounds in the first half," Shocker Coach Gene Smithson said. "We, on the other hand, weren't getting any second shots and we missed a few easy first shots."
While the Wichita State offense was floundering for 10 straight possessions (three fouls, four turnovers, three missed shots), LSU was increasing its lead to 25-12 on a 12-footer by Cook, two free throws by Willie Sims, a Mitchell bank shot and Macklin's two free throws.
By the time Shocker guard Randy Smithson (18 points) made a long jumper to end the slump on the 11th possession, LSU was on top, 25-14, with 10 minutes remaining in the half. The Tigers hit seven of the next nine points to take a 32-16 lead and the partisan crowd was cheering the Tigers on in their home-away-from-home court.
Wichita State cut a 21-point lead to 48-33 at halftime, and tried to get back into the game with various presses in the second half. But LUS Coach Dale Brown countered by playing three guards and letting 6-foot senior Ethan Martin run the Tiger fast break. LSU broke the Shocker presses easily, Martin getting half of his 10 assists.
The Shockers cut the LSU lead to nine a couple of times in the waning minutes, but it was too late.
Brown said the NCAA tournament teams remaining from the original 48, "comprise the toughest final four in many, many years. There's no Cinderella team this year. I can't remember another year that the final four were better."
Brown will take to Philadelphia a team with one of the most physical front lines in the nation. Marklin has gotten the publicity and Mitchell has been labeled, "the promising freshman." But the man who has quietly done the main work around the basket has been Cook, the fifth-year senior Brown suspended for disciplinary reasons in November.
Asked what he would do if he encountered a sudden attach of butterflies before Saturday's semifinal, Cook replied, "I'll get some of the guys togehter in somebody's room, and we'll play backgammon. That's what most of us do before big games to stay calm. As a matter of fact, we're probably the best team in the nation at backgammon, too."