With four seconds to go, the time was right. They were nine points up and they had one of their own going to the foul line. There was no way LSU could catch them now, not with The Freak, The Blob or The Eggplant That Ate Chicago. So Jeff Hall turned to Milt Wagner and they clasped hands tightly, high above their heads. Then, joining them at center court came Billy Thompson, forming, for you geometry majors, a three-man, six-handed high-five. "We like being around each other," Hall would later explain.
The three of them are the leaders of a Louisville team that has won 31 games this season, 16 in a row, and has taken what seems so far a rather casual stroll through the NCAA tournament. And what is particularly interesting about the three of them is what strange and rutted paths each has taken to get to here. Wagner should have been gone by now, but he broke his foot last season, sat out his first senior year and finds himself now playing a second. Hall is a jump-shooting white kid from eastern Kentucky, the kind of kid who, historically, never goes to Louisville, but always goes to the University of Kentucky. Why he didn't is the subject of a later paragraph. Four years ago Thompson was the most coveted high school player in the country; with him, all things were possible. Yet he has never averaged more than 15 points per game in college, and earlier this season, after scoring hardly at all in big games against Memphis State, Kansas and Syracuse, stood accused of Cardinal sin and was booed by the home fans.
Wagner first. He scored 22 points and handed out 11 assists Saturday against LSU. More importantly, eight of those points and three of those assists came within the four minutes and 24 seconds 17-1 rock 'n' roll hoochie-koo Louisville put on early in the second half. "I'm the one who's supposed to do that," Wagner said. "I'm the motivator. The guys all look to me."
He has been to three Final Fours now, and this one seems the sweetest. The second game of last season he broke a bone in his foot, and what was supposed to be six weeks of inactivity turned into eight months. "I couldn't even go see our games," Wagner said. "All I did was go to school and go back to the hospital. I was like an outpatient." He healed so slowly there were all kinds of rumors in Louisville, including that the foot had been secretly amputated. Last summer while walking downtown Wagner was coerced into actually taking off his shoe and sock to show someone that the foot was indeed real. "No pins, no nothing, it's a real foot," Wagner insisted. After starting slowly, shooting only 37 percent through Louisville's first seven games this season, Wagner has played like a sure first-round draft choice. "I had a lot of confidence in my doctors, and I made my comeback on schedule. My goal was to lead this team to the Final Four, and here I am."
Next, Hall, who had 14 points Saturday night. He is the only white starter on Louisville, a program that has, in the last decade, overwhelmingly if not exclusively featured black players, which was no small concern to the locals when Hall chose Louisville over Kentucky. "They wondered why I did it," Hall said. "We made the Final Four my freshman year, and I went home and told them: 'Now you see why.' I've never had the slightest problem fitting in at Louisville, none whatsoever. There's more to our team than just basketball. Deep down I love these guys. You ask me why I went to Louisville? They wanted me. Kentucky didn't get interested in me until after I'd committed to Louisville. And look around. We're still playing in this tournament. Where's Kentucky?"
And finally, Thompson. He was la creme de la creme when he signed, rated over Walter Berry, Brad Daugherty, Roy Tarpley and Kenny Walker, to name a few. Thompson was compared to Dr. J. and Bernard King and was said to be the prototypical Louisville player: long, graceful, can jump over the moon. The ratings have been well scrambled since then and Thompson has suffered in comparison, particularly against Kentucky's Walker. "I'll leave it up to you to decide whether I've been overrated or underrated," Thompson said softly. But he allowed that "it's been a messed-up four years, pretty weird."
Yet Thompson is having a spectacular tournament, shooting 68.5 percent. He abused Steve Hale in Louisville's win over North Carolina, and Saturday night he held John Williams to two points in the second half -- none after the 15:13 mark. How much one game counts for is hard to say, but Thompson had a great one against LSU: He hit on 10 of 11 shots, scored 22 points and took 10 rebounds. "The critics," he said, "are seeing some of my game they haven't seen."
In defense of a career that will look better cumulatively than one season at a time, Thompson said: "I've shown them I can score 30 points, get 10 rebounds, dish out six assists. I've done that this year." In defense of Thompson, Hall said: "People should get off his back. Billy Thompson's the man that makes us go. People say he hasn't lived up to expectations. That's crap. We won 31 games this year. He must be doing something right."
There's only one game left to this season. And Louisville's in it. How many more questions can there be?