Six stitches on my upper lip and a knot on my chin," said Derek Smith, adding up the damages of two games' worth of work for Louisville in the NCAA Mideast Regional. "And I don't know what's wrong with my jaw."
All that--and a spot on the all-tournament team--came from what he calls "nudging in there on defense" with a collection of leapers and backboard sweepers on the road again to the final four, for the second time in three years but the first with the genuine identity of team.
"In 1980," Smith said after Louisville's 75-68 victory over Alabama-Birmingham today, "we were four young kids helping a big show named Darrell Griffith (win the NCAA title). Now we think maybe somebody'll give us some of our due."
They earned it today, although a wave of underclassmen helped Smith, lead guard Jerry Eaves, Wiley Brown and reserve Poncho Wright get back where they believed they belonged even before the season began. Louisville expects to win--and big.
"Six wins in the next eight games improved the Cardinals' record to 11-3," the team's playoff brochure said, "a little short of preseason expectations but still a solid first half of the season."
Only at a few schools is 11-3 called "solid."
Today as well as the entire season, the Cardinals had a flair for keeping their fans on edge. They make the tough, seemingly impossible, hands-in-the-face shots and then blow free throws. And after that early, "solid" spurt they lost four in a row. Coach Denny Crum believes that helped the journey to the final four a bit easier.
To make his team tournament-tough before the NCAA tournament, Crum scheduled Oregon State, Purdue, De Paul, Virginia and Marquette, in addition to two Metro Conference games each with Memphis State and Virginia Tech. That's why nobody objected when the 20-9 Cards got a bid after losing to Memphis State by 11 in the conference playoffs.
"And we gave our younger players playing time early," Crum added. "The seniors made the sacrifices necessary for them to get better. And our bench was the major reason we won today. That's why you play that kind of schedule. You can't worry about your won-lost record.
"Of course, it doesn't guarantee you anything. But it gives you the best chance (of advancing in the NCAAs). And ain't it nice we're going to New Orleans?"
Nice isn't how they got there from this regional. Smith was stitched up after Thursday's victory over Minnesota; he was afraid his jaw had been relocated today during a collision with UAB's Oliver Robinson.
"Nudged my face in there too far," he admitted of the collision that kept him on the floor for several minutes. "Sitting out there, I knew I'd be back (in the game). It was just a matter of whether they put a strap around (his face).
"Gettin' beat up and comin' back is how I play (he's also the second-leading Cardinal career scorer). If you're gettin' in the way, it shows you're playing basketball. But I don't want to be hit this many times in the face again. My voice is even changing."
Smith had the same chirp-growl fluctuations he probably had not experienced in years; earlier, in the Louisville dressing room, Eaves had offered a song-like chant: "We're back . . . final four . . . we're back . . . final four . . . we're back . . . final four." Brown was wearing one of the nets, wig-like.
And one of the youngsters who had gained valuable early-season experience, sophomore center Charles Jones, was trying to explain the one play that lingers in the minds of everyone who saw it up close: the time Donnie Speer hit him like some out-of-control linebacker but still couldn't keep the ball out of the basket.
"I knew he was coming," Jones said of that base line drive that tied the game at 54 with 7:23 left, "so I took it up as strong as I could. I waited 'till there was contact, then I released the ball. I said to myself: 'You're not gonna be intimidated.' His elbow hit my eye and I lost contact with the basket. So I laid it up on the square."
Louisville missed a bunch of free throws before sinking what it needed near the end. UAB's problems were inexperience and not much luck with the officials. Once Robinson clearly was fouled before he missed a foul-line jumper and nothing was called. A teammate was caught back-hanging as Jones grabbed the rebound.
"This is a team effort," Eaves said of the contrast to his other final-four experience, not meaning it as anything negative toward Griffith. "There's a closeness here. The hot hand gets the ball. Whoever it may be. If coach Crum could shoot it, we'd give him the ball."
Eaves was not at all upset that Robinson was judged the tournament's outstanding player.
"The better team wins," he said, "not the better player."