N.C. State cast in 'Rocky' role vs. No. 1 Houston for NCAA title
Albuquerque, N.M. — The American dream and the Nigerian ''Dream.'' They meet head-on in tonight's National Collegiate Athletic Association championship basketball game at The Pit , the University of New Mexico's sunken arena.
On one hand, there's the American dream that North Carolina State Coach Jim Valvano talks about - the opportunity for his team to reach that unreachable star. On the other hand, there's Houston's Akeem (the Dream) Olajuwon, the Nigerian pivotman who intends to block the stairway to all stars, reachable and otherwise, along with a lot of shots.
On the surface, the NCAA tournament seldom produces such a seeming mismatch in the final. The heavy favorites, of course, are the No. 1 ranked University of Houston Cougars, whose 31-2 record and 26-game winning streak only hint at the physical devastation this club can wreak. In the underdog role is N.C. State's Wolfpack, which may be excused for approaching the 9 p.m. (EST) tapoff humming the theme from Rocky.
It's not that State is a pushover. It's just that people have to wonder what chance a team that was ranked only 14th entering the tournament stands against Houston's steamroller.
State came on like gangbusters toward the end of the season, but the fact remains that no team with 10 defeats has ever walked off with the NCAA title.
The Wolfpack has been red-hot, however, and as the team's raspy-voiced coach has said, ''When you're on a roll, who knows what can happen?'' Yet the quotable New Yorker also knows just what a huge challenge lies ahead.
After his club had eliminated Georgia 67-60 in Saturday's first semifinal - called the preliminary by some - he returned to courtside to watch the featured ''heavyweight bout'' in which Houston blasted second-ranked Louisville 94-81.
''I missed the first half,'' Valvano said, ''and wished I'd missed the second.''
What he witnessed in that last 20 minutes was perhaps the greatest display of power basketball ever produced at the college level.During one stretch, Houston, which had trailed 41-36 at the half, outscored Louisville 24-3 with an array of high-flying moves.
The run was peppered with some of approximately 17 spectacular dunks Olajuwon and the other brothers of ''Phi Slama Jama'' collected during the game. Akeem deposited his share of resounding stuffs on a day in which he had 21 points, 22 rebounds, and 8 blocked shots. But the two that absolutely brought the house down came from reserve Benny Anders and all-American forward Clyde Drexler.
Anders, who had come in for fouled-out Larry Micheaux, jammed home a tremendous windmill dunk to bring Houston within two at 57-55.
Drexler's beauty, which came about a minute later on another fast-break opportunity, not only put the Cougars up 60-57 but also summarized the way the game was going. What made this piece de resistance extra special was that it came against a Louisville team noted for its ''in-your-face'' defense.
Asked to describe what he had done in sailing to the hoop from some 15 feet out, the 6 ft. 7 in. forward explained: ''I wanted to make him (the defender) think first that I was going to dunk it. Then, if he thought that, I would bring it down and pass it. Then I went on and dunked it. Then we were both confused.'' All this was done in a split second.
With so many leapers on both teams, it lived up to being a classic, high-above-the-rim battle in which players only came down occasionally for air, and thin air at that. Albuquerque's 5,000-foot altitude had Louisville's Cardinals breathing through oxygen masks on the bench. As the game progressed, though, they merely choked on Houston's exhaust fumes.
''I thought they were kind of awesome,'' said Coach Denny Crum, who was trying to bring Louisville its second NCAA title in four years. ''I thought we played about as well as we could, but we couldn't wear them down. Physically they just overpowered us.''
Houston has overpowered a lot of folks this season, as an 18-points-per-game winning margin indicates. Obviously, N.C. State will have its hands full trying to stop this highly decorated airborne unit.
Throughout the postseason, however, the Wolfpack has been very resourceful, finding ways to win when few thought it could. Late-game rallies have become such a trademark of this team that Valvano says, ''The key for us is to be down five with 30 seconds left. That's when we start doing our best.''
But against Georgia, State showed it is flexible, building a sizable lead, then holding off the surging Bulldogs at the end. After so many upsets, Georgia had finally gone flat, managing only that one last-gasp run before an oddly subdued Bulldog cheering section.
N.C. State's guard tandem of Dereck Whittenburg and Sidney Lowe was a constant source of trouble for Georgia, and could be for Houston too.
They are outstanding perimeter players, just the kind needed to shoot over Houston's defense. First, though, they must get the ball, and the question is whether the Wolfpack's two 6-11 mainstays up front, Thurl Bailey and Cozell McQueen, will be able to rebound effectively against the more muscular Cougars.
North Carolina State was here once before, in 1974, when it beat an Al Maguire-coached Marquette squad in the final. Houston, meanwhile, is making its first trip to a championship game, but in its fourth appearance in the Final Four.
Guy Lewis, the Cougars' often-underrated mentor, would love to justify his selection as Coach of the Year by winning it all in this, his 27th year at Houston.