CRAWFORD | Louisville NCAA Rewind: The Cards' first tournament win
Louisville banned itself from this year's NCAA Tournament, but WDRB's Eric Crawford is reliving some significant tournament wins from Louisville's past -- round by round.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — You could feel the pain of a fan base as March Madness got under way on Thursday. On Selection Sunday, ratings for the CBS bracket announcement were well down from last year’s number in Louisville, the nation’s top market for college basketball viewership.
In covering Kentucky and Indiana at the NCAA Des Moines first-and-second-round site, I get plenty of caustic comments from Louisville fans, who don’t much care for hearing about other programs, especially those programs, this time of year.
It’s part of the job. But one thing I wanted to do was offer something, and so I settled on this — a game story from each round of the NCAA Tournament featuring a Louisville tournament game of the past. Some fans will remember the games, some may experience them for the first time.
This is the first installment. I figured I might as well do first things first. So the first installment is Louisville’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win, on March 10, 1959.
Where was it played? Memorial Coliseum in Lexington. It was played against Eastern Kentucky. Nearly 11,000 fans showed up. The game was broadcast on WHAS Radio back to the Cardinals’ hometown and across much of the Eastern United States. Cawood Ledford called the action.
It wasn’t, incidentally, U of L’s first NCAA Tournament game. That came back in 1951, a 79-68 loss to a Kentucky team that would go on to win the NCAA championship, then be penalized when several players were arrested for shaving points. After that, Coach Peck Hickman faced a long NCAA drought made longer when the NCAA hit his program with a suspension for recruiting violations involving Don Goldstein and Alex Mantel.
But back in the NCAA in 1959, the Cardinals would make the most of it. The winner of their game with EKU would face No. 2-ranked Kentucky in Evanston, Ill.
Louisville had already moved into Freedom Hall by that point, but was still practicing in tiny Belknap Gym, where you could go crashing into a brick wall alarmingly easily.
The season didn’t start as if it would be anything special. The Cardinals were 9-9 on Jan. 31, with losses to No. 6 Northwestern, No. 6 N.C. State, No. 15 St. Louis and No. 12 Marquette among the disappointments.
Even so, the team was ranked No. 17 in the nation heading into the ninth of those losses — a setback to Marquette attended by the largest crowd ever to attend a game in Milwaukee to that point.
After that, however, the Cardinals got things going. They beat Florida Southern by 31, then Kansas, Tampa, and won the rematch with No. 11 Marquette by 13. After a loss at DePaul, they won their final three games to earn their way to this Mideast regional matchup with EKU.
In the game itself, Louisville looked to land a knockout blow right after the tipoff against EKU.
Johnny Carrico’s Courier-Journal account said, “Everything fell into place for the high-flying Redbirds as they ripped off an incredible 20-to-4 lead over the tense Maroons in less than 8 minutes.”
Then, things nearly fell apart. The Cards suffered a blow when 6-11 sophomore center Fred Sawyer sprained an ankle in the first half. He tried to make a go of it, but left after only two minutes of the second. To make matters worse, John Turner fouled out early in the second half.
That meant Goldstein had to shift over into the center spot — but the move proved just what the Cardinals needed to break the game open. Up 40-37, they went on a 13-0 run to get some breathing room against the Colonels, before cruising to a 77-63 victory.
The Cardinals shot 42.4 percent for the game and held EKU to 30.1 percent shooting. They outrebounded the Colonels 50 to 40.
With the injuries and fouls, Hickman told The Courier-Journal he was delighted with the depth his team showed.
“The reserves won the ball game, there’s no doubt about that,” Hickman was quoted in The Courier-Journal. “Buddy Leathers and Joe Kitchen came through when it counted and combined well with the three remaining regulars.”
Among those impressed with the Cardinals was Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who was scouting U of L from courtside for much of the game with the help of assistant coach Harry Lancaster and coaches from Henry Clay High School and Transylvania College in Lexington.
“As I remember it, I’d have to say this Louisville team is more versatile than the U.L. outfits we have played before,” Rupp told C-J reporter Larry Boeck. “That Don Goldstein is the key to this U.L. team,” Rupp said. “Goldstein is one of the most versatile players I’ve seen this year. He does everything — shoot, rebound, play the pivot. Why, he even takes the ball across the center line.”
Rupp told Boeck Louisville had, “speed, rebounding and shoots well. They don’t take many bad shots, I’ll tell ya. I believe they’re faster, maybe more effective with that big boy out. Anyway, they were when we left the game. And U.L. did better than I expected, too, when Turner fouled out. But he’s a good one — strong.”
Rupp’s scouting report proved spot-on. The Cardinals would go into the second-round game against Kentucky as 12-point underdogs, and fell behind by 15, but stormed back to win 76-61, then upset No. 7 Michigan State 88-81 to reach the school’s first Final Four, where it fell to No. 10 West Virginia 94-79.
The Cardinals finished the 1958-59 season 19-12, but their first regional title and Final Four appearance showed the program what was possible. John Turner was the team’s leading scorer on the season at 14 points per game, followed closely by Goldstein at 13.8 and Fred Sawyer at 11.7. Roger Tieman averaged 9.2 points per game and Harold Andrews 8.8.
They wouldn’t return to the Final Four until Denny Crum led them to a 26-5 record and the Midwest Regional championship in 1972.
Copyright 2016 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved. Some information from this story was gathered via The Courier-Journal archive. If you're into the history of the city and its institutions, an archive subscription is worth the price. See details here.