The magic, voodoo, mumbo jumbo and all those other things Dale Brown likes to invoke came to an abrupt end for Louisiana State today. They disappeared into so much thin air against Louisville, a team that relies on nothing more than defense and dunks.
The comparatively straight-laced Cardinals (31-7) placed all five starters in double figures to defeat the flamboyant Bayou Bengals, 88-77, in an NCAA semifinal at Reunion Arena. It was typical of Louisville's insatiable Doctors of Dunk, a team on a 16-game winning streak that will meet top-ranked Duke Monday to decide the national championship.
Led by forward Billy Thompson and guard Milt Wagner with 22 points each, Louisville overcame a 44-36 halftime deficit and went on a 17-1 scoring run early in the second half to earn its chance at the title. Thompson, a 6-foot-7 senior, limited LSU's brilliant sophomore forward John Williams to 14 points, only two of which came in the second half.
"We just had that one good little run in the second half, and that was the difference," said Coach Denny Crum in a characteristic understatement. "The first half was not to our liking, but our defense got tougher in the second half and denied them a lot of the things they tried to do. We had five guys in double figures, and that's what we like."
LSU (26-12) never trailed in the first half in taking its eight-point lead at intermission, a startling display against a Louisville team that was considered an outright lock. Even when they fell behind by 10 after Louisville's scoring run, the Tigers showed a flair for drama, rallying within four with 6:50 to go.
But the Cardinals' relentless full-court press, simple man-to-man defense and incessant running offense began to wear down the thin Tigers, who had a roster of only 11 as a result of a chain of misfortunes and simply failed physically in the stretch.
LSU's vaunted Freak defense, a combination of man-to-man and zone invented by Brown, turned out to be gimmickry and no match for Louisville's scoring power. Sophomore forward Herb Crook had 16 points for the Cardinals, guard Jeff Hall had 14 and 6-9 freshman center Pervis Ellison 11 points, along with 13 rebounds.
LSU had four scorers in double figures, which indicated how the game went. Forward Don Redden, a transplanted guard, had 22 to lead the Tigers, followed by guards Derrick Taylor (16) and Anthony Wilson (15). Center Ricky Blanton, another 6-6 transplanted guard, had nine points and 12 rebounds in a fine performance in the middle, where he was badly outmatched.
"We couldn't have played harder or smarter," Brown said. "We felt we belonged here because we earned our way here. All you had to do was watch to know how we got here. We had by far the toughest route here, and I think for the first time we looked really tired."
The Tigers were seeded 11th, the lowest ever to make a Final Four. And they got here despite a remarkable series of troubles, ranging from players' academic ineligibility to a chicken pox quarantine. They lost four players, including center Tito Horford of the Dominican Republic, who wound up at Miami, and second-leading scorer Nikita Wilson, a forward who was declared ineligible.
Louisville had had relatively few problems, save for an early-season slump when the Cardinals went 11-6, and the protests of a couple of reserves who felt they weren't playing enough. But that apparently only made them stronger. The Cardinals have won 20 of their last 21 games.
Louisville outrebounded LSU, 44-35, with a dominant front court led by Thompson, who had 10 rebounds. With the superior rebounding, the Cardinals shot 64 percent from the floor in the second half and 56 percent for the game; their defense forced the Tigers to shoot 35 percent after intermission.
"I look at myself as a player who can hurt you from all areas," Thompson said. With the Tigers shooting poorly from the outside in the second half, Thompson and a revolving cast of characters double-teamed Williams to shut down LSU's inside game as well. Williams did not score in the final 15:13.
"It was nothing I hadn't seen before," was Williams' only comment. He averaged 14 points in what was a poor tournament for him after he scored 17.8 per game in the regular season.
Louisville wasted no time in cutting into its eight-point halftime deficit. The Cardinals opened the second half with four straight points, on Thompson's jumper and another by Wagner, to cut it to 44-40 with 19:14 to go.
They were not able to tie it up until 13:55 remained. They did it with six straight points, as their outside shots began to fall and LSU went cold. The six points began a 17-1 Louisville spurt in a 4:24 span, ending with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Louisville trailed, 54-48, after Williams' drive on the base line. But those two were his last points, and the Cardinals began their run.
Thompson made a jumper from the lane. Then Williams missed to set up Wagner's fast-break layup off Thompson's rebound. When Williams missed twice from the inside, the Cardinals finally got the rebound and a layup from Jeff Hall. That made it 54-54 with 13:55 to go.
Hall scored again, Thompson had another jumper, reserve center Mark McSwain added a three-point play, and Wagner made two straight jumpers. The second gave them the 10-point margin, 65-55, to end the run.
LSU's only point over the stretch was a free throw from Redden.
"We had so many shots rim in and then out," Redden said. "That let them double-team John, and they ran their fast breaks off the rebounds."
But the Tigers were not finished. Trailing, 67-57, with 8:39 to go, they put together six straight points. Four of them came from Redden, who scored twice on jumpers, and Anthony Wilson added a jam off his own steal. Redden's second jumper cut it to four, 67-63, with 6:50 to go.
They stayed within four until 5:19 remained. But then Louisville put together six more points, on Crook's two drives to the lane and Hall's short bank on a Crook assist. That made it 77-67 with 3:19 to go.
This is the fourth time in seven years the Cardinals have made the Final Four, and Crum has guided six teams to the semifinals, winning the championship in 1980.
"He told us at halftime exactly what it would take for us to win," Hall said. "We got a couple of quick buckets and got right back in the ball game. We listened to what he said. He's had a lot of experience in this tournament, and you'd better hear what he says."