It was hard to catch a breath at the Summit tonight, what with Louisville and Auburn taking it away with all those swoops and slams. That someone eventually had to go home seemed sort of a pity, especially since it was a couple of teams from North Carolina and Nevada-Las Vegas that also had so relentlessly decorated the rafters for most of the evening.
Seventh-ranked Louisville eventually pulled away from eighth-ranked North Carolina, 94-79, in the semifinals of NCAA West regional, but don't dwell on the final numbers, because they lie. What really happened was these two teams combined to create one of the most artful and thrilling games yet in the tournament.
Earlier, Auburn got a dark-horse victory over 11th-ranked UNLV, the Tigers producing all sorts of unexpected genius for a 70-63 victory to make their first regional final in school history.
While the score did not say it, Louisville's victory was perhaps one of the most hard-fought of the tournament. The Cardinals (29-7) prevailed only after a tie at halftime, and a rapid comeback mounted by North Carolina (28-6) after trailing by 12 as late as the 9:59 mark. The Tar Heels took a two-point lead, 75-73, with 4:31 remaining before Louisville started a procession to the foul line, hitting 15 of 16 free throws down the stretch and outscoring the Tar Heels by 21-6.
"I think they're a great team, definitely one of the top five in the country," North Carolina Coach Dean Smith said. "We hit them on what might have been their best shot."
The Cardinals placed five scorers in double figures, led by forward Billy Thompson with 24 points. Forward Herb Crook had 20, freshman center Pervis Ellison had 15 going against all-America Brad Daugherty, and guards Milt Wagner and Jeff Hall had 14 and 12, respectively.
"You don't beat Carolina with one guy," Louisville Coach Denny Crum said. "Everybody had to do it."
That helped nullify Daugherty, who had 19 points and 15 rebounds in the final game of his collegiate career. He leaves the Tar Heels without having made an appearance in the Final Four. Forward Joe Wolf had 20 points, while guard Jeff Lebo had 18 and guard Kenny Smith had 12. Forward Steve Hale finishd his career with four points.
"You always think you're going to win," Hale said. "We dug in there, but we just got it taken away from us . . . A lot of people have never been to the Final Four, it's not that disappointing. I was just happy to play for a great system."
The consensus among the Tar Heels was that the game might have been different without the help of outside interlopers, specifically the officials. The Tar Heels had come back from the 12-point deficit with a 14-2 run. Smith made two free throws on Thompson's fourth foul to give the Tar Heels a 75-73 lead.
But North Carolina went scoreless for the next 2:58 and Louisville scored eight points for an 81-75 lead with 1:58 to go. Thompson made a layup, missing a free throw on a potential three-point play, to start it, and then came the disputed call. Hale attempted a driving bank shot over Ellison, and was called for a charge, his fourth foul. Ellison sunk two free throws for a 77-75 lead, Thompson added another layup, and then Wagner made two free throws on Smith's fourth foul with 1:58 to go.
"We got a terrible call on Hale's drive to the basket," Dean Smith said. "At that point we were still getting good shots. But we miss a couple, they call some fouls, and then of course it did get away at the end. We were gambling, just doing anything."
It was a boring march to the free throw line to end an otherwise spectacular game. After a 43-43 tie at halftime, Louisville took its 12-point lead with 15:24 remaining, opening the second half with a 16-4 scoring run. That gave them a 59-47 margin, and North Carolina still trailed by as much with 10:01 to go when the Tar Heels suddenly went on the 14-2 run, Daugherty tying it at 71 with 6:24 to go on his base-line jumper.
"I told our guys when we took the big lead that there was still 15 minutes left on the clock," Crum said. "I said: 'They won't quit, this is the crucial time in the game, so let's open it up.' We didn't do that, but we didn't fold in the stretch."
In retrospect, North Carolina may have been at a disadvantage from the start because of injuries. Hale was recovering from a partially collapsed lung, and Wolf and reserve center Warren Martin both were coming off sprained ankles. Louisville, meanwhile, is healthy and on a 14-game winning streak.
"I can complain all I want," Daugherty said, "but we got beat."
Auburn's comeback, meanwhile, worked. The Tigers (22-10) trailed by 14 points in the first period and rallied from a 34-25 halftime deficit. They were led by Chuck Person's 25 points, 17 of them in the second half.
UNLV (33-5), the last West Coast team in the tournament, was led by forward Armon Gilliam with 21 points. The Runnin' Rebels dominated the first half, but seemed to wilt in the stretch against a physically intimidating team that used a series of trapping zone and man defenses. The Tigers outrebounded the Runnin' Rebels by 41-28.
"The second and third shots was the difference," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said. "They just wore us down or something. Then when the game was on the line we missed some clutch shots."
With 3:56 left, Auburn held a 56-55 lead before the Runnin' Rebels missed four straight free throws in the stretch, the Tigers outscoring them by 14-7 over the remainder of the game. Person had five of the points and Gerald White had six -- all on free throws -- as the Tigers made eight of 11 foul shots in the final 1:40.
The Tigers finally took the lead with 7:58 to go. It came on Jeff Moore's layin from the lane to make it 50-49. UNLV went up by three again, but Person gave the Tigers the lead for good with 3:02 left, on four straight points. He hit a jumper and an alley oop slam. That made it 58-55.
UNLV proceeded to miss the four straight free throws, three by Anthony Jones, the former Dunbar High School star who had 18 points.
"I know my college career is over, and that's something I haven't really come to grips with yet," said Jones, in his second season after transferring from Georgetown. "We could have gone inside more in the second half. We blew the game there."