CRAWFORD | Louisville NCAA Rewind, Round 2: Branch saves Cards' - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | Louisville NCAA Rewind, Round 2: Branch saves Cards' 1980 title chances

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University of Louisville promotional photo for last season's reunion of the 1980 NCAA championship team. University of Louisville promotional photo for last season's reunion of the 1980 NCAA championship team.

This is the second story in a series by WDRB sports columnist Eric Crawford revisiting some University of Louisville basketball victories, round-by-round, in light of the Cardinals not having a tournament this season because of the school’s self-imposed postseason ban. Today’s story — the second round.

By Eric Crawford

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Everybody remembers the 1980 NCAA championship for the University of Louisville. They remember the Doctors of Dunk, Darrell Griffith and the ‘Ville in ‘Nap Town. This Is it.

None of that would have happened, however, had the Cardinals not gotten some heroics from a player off the bench in the first game of that tournament, which was a second-round NCAA Tournament game on March 8, 1980.

It had not been the kind of year Tony Branch had counted on as a senior at Louisville. He figured he would start at guard, along with his classmate, Griffith.

Instead, Cardinals’ coach Denny Crum went with Jerry Eaves at starter, brought Roger Burkman off the bench, and Branch seemed at times like a forgotten man. He played only 92 minutes and took only 25 shots all season heading into the NCAA Tournament.

LOUISVILLE NCAA REWIND | First round: Louisville's first tournament win

But U of L never wins a title without contributions from unlikely places, it seems. Branch was a study in keeping himself ready to play, ready to contribute. He was a quiet leader.

Louisville, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, needed every bit of that leadership in its opener against No. 7 seed Kansas State, played in the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln, Neb., and broadcast on NBC with Dick Enberg, Bryant Gumbel and Al McGuire.

U of L came into the game well-rested, with a 28-3 record. Griffith had averaged better than 26 points per game over his final seven games heading into the tournament.

But the Cardinals were out of sync all day in their NCAA opener. Griffith went just 8 of 20 from the field (though he also dished out 8 assists). Kansas State was careful with the ball, and forced the Cards into 19 turnovers.

And with the Midwestern crowd of 14,458 adopting the upset-minded Wildcats, U of L found itself in a much tougher spot than expected in an opening-game.

Still, the Cardinals led by seven with seven minutes left in the game, but turnovers were a problem down the stretch, and a Rolondo Blackman tip-in with two seconds left forced overtime.

The Cards led by two when Blackman shot-faked and got Griffith into the air, then went up under him to pick up Griffith’s fifth foul. He sank the two free throws, and with 2:20 left, the Cardinals were tied and their leader was on the bench.

Enter Branch. The senior, it could always be said, was a cool operator. He didn’t get rattled. With the ball in his hands (and no shot clock in those days), Louisville ran the clock down to 1:57 and called a timeout.

Then they ran another 1:43 off the clock and used their final timeout with 14 seconds left.

Crum called a play designed for Griffith, but the ball would instead be in Branch’s hands. The Cards almost didn’t get the ball inbounds. Wiley Brown told Courier-Journal reporter Mike Sullivan that he almost called another timeout on the inbounds, which would’ve given Kansas State free throws for a technical foul.

By the time Branch got the ball to run the play, only seven seconds remained. He dribbled between Blackman and Glenn Marshall, leaned in from about 15 feet out and put up a shot that hit the front of the rim, then bounced before dropping softly through the net with one second left.

“I just sat there hoping that the fellas would take over without me — not lose confidence, but actually gain more confidence,” Griffith told Sullivan. “They did it, too. Tony is a senior and he kept his cool.”

Derek Smith, who led the Cardinals with 20 points and played all 45 minutes, told Courier-Journal columnist Billy Reed: “If there’s one guy on the team that I really wanted to see do that, it was Tony. He kept his attitude steady.”

Reed’s column on Branch in that day’s C-J is a wonderful piece. He wrote about how Branch dealt with the disappointment of not playing, after being so highly sought-after a recruit that Muhammad Ali himself called to try to persuade him to come to Louisville instead of going to Ohio State. A Chicago Tribune feature on his recruitment in 1976 said he received letters from 180 schools.

Even when his playing time diminished, Branch remained a fan favorite. Fans chanted his name late in games.

Crum told Reed, “There’s nobody who likes or respects Tony more than I do. It was hard for me. I got a lot of criticism for it, but I felt it would be best for our team to go with the younger players.”

Reed’s best line came in describing what it meant when Branch’s shot bounced in.

“It meant more than just a victory,” he wrote. “More even than just a trip to Houston for this week’s NCAA Midwest Regionals. It meant that sometimes there is still some justice in the world, after all. It meant that hard work, dedication, selflessness and, yes, character still count for something in life and in college basketball.”

It also meant the Cardinals stayed on the road to the school’s first NCAA title just a couple of weeks later. And that, of course, was not just a game-changer for the university, but for the city itself.

Reed described a kid after the game telling Branch, “Nice shot.” Branch winked at him and said, “You could’ve done it, too.”

It wasn’t the last time Branch would encourage a kid. He has done it the rest of his life, as a high school teacher, coach and administrator in the Louisville area.

He and Eaves, the player who replaced him, have been lifelong friends, and Branch helps Eaves with his Simmons College team today.

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.

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