ENGSTER: The game that elevated LSU Basketball

In a few days, it will be 40 years since LSU played Kentucky at the Assembly Center on Feb. 11, 1978. The monolithic Wildcats were directed by Joe B. Hall, a coach who had the unfortunate task of succeeding Adolph Rupp. Even though he led the Cats to eight league titles in 13 seasons, Hall was never revered at Lexington. His most heralded team was the 1978 crew that had won the SEC a year earlier with a 16-2 record and returned all of its key contributors. His squad lost only twice in ’78, and the last unit to beat the Big Blue was an upstart group of athletes who had arrived in bayou country from a variety of places not often traveled by previous basketball coaches at LSU.

In the fall of 1977, I was a freshman and watched LSU beat the Russian National Team to preview the season, then the Tigers inexplicably dropped their opener to Butch van Breda Kolff and UNO, 73-69, before a stunned crowd in Baton Rouge. It was a stirring debut with the Privateers for van Breda Kolff, who had previously coached both the Los Angeles Lakers, New Orleans Jazz, Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns. It was a devastating defeat for Dale Brown, who thought he was ready to compete with the prime powers in the college game.

The Tigers were on the brink of success as the fiery coach entered his sixth season with a 63-66 overall record. The roster featured senior guard Kenny Higgs, junior center Lionel Green, sophomore forward Rudy Macklin, sophomore guard Jordy Hultberg and three promising freshman in forward DeWayne Scales and guards Ethan Martin and Willie Sims. Two other outstanding players, center Greg Cook and guard Al Green, were ineligible but would be key to helping LSU win its first SEC title in a quarter century one year later.

After the opening night embarrassment to UNO, LSU improved and whipped nationally-ranked DePaul and came within a whisker of beating Arkansas, which was fielding its best team to that point, a club that went to the Final Four with a 32-4 record. The clash against Kentucky was a David vs. Goliath showdown with the Wildcats four weeks removed from a 96-76 rout of LSU at Rupp Arena.

Kentucky fielded a senior laden lineup that was on its way to the national title. Four-year starter Rick Robey was the marquee player for the Wildcats and had left New Orleans’ Brother Martin High School to join forces with Coach Hall in Lexington. He and fellow senior Mike Phillips were overly physical at times, a point that Dale Brown accented in his post-game remarks on Jan. 14 when he accused Kentucky of brutalizing the game.

When challenged by writer Billy Reed about whether his gang was also a rough and tumble outfit, Brown responded by asking the Kentucky journalist if he had ever masturbated. The Trumpian line caused the Bengal boss to be reprimanded by SEC officials, who deemed the outburst offensive.

The anticipation of beating Kentucky on the night of Feb. 11 was palpable as students gathered outside the arena overnight to secure good seats. I recall a pre-game meal at the old Mike Anderson’s location on Highland Road with some classmates early in the afternoon as we prepared to see LSU battle a team with NBA size and depth.

The game was epic as LSU grabbed a 12-point lead, but faced the prospect of losing its starting five to foul trouble. By the end of regulation, Kentucky had rallied to send the contest into overtime with LSU losing one player after another to fouls. Gone were Macklin, Scales, Higgs, Lionel Green, and soon into overtime, Martin went to the bench with his fifth foul. The now departed starting five had scored 69 of the Tigers’ 83 points in regulation.

The Wildcats were poised to crush the Bengals in overtime. LSU did not buckle against one of the great teams in college basketball as the Tigers survived the extra period with Hultberg, Sims and Floyd Bailey playing brilliantly.

LSU took a 92-89 lead with 1:40 remaining in OT as Hultberg connected from the corner. The final was 95-94 as LSU won its fifth straight league game, the longest SEC streak by an LSU team in 24 years at that time. Students rushed the floor as pandemonium ensued in what ranks as one of the most searing victories in LSU basketball history.

Macklin was 11-of-12 from the field and scored 23 points in 25 minutes while Scales corralled 17 rebounds in 31 minutes.

The Tigers won four of their next six conference games and finished second in the SEC to Kentucky, but did not receive an invitation to either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. It was a snub for sure, but a prelude to 16 consecutive years of post-season appearances for the Bengals.

The win over Kentucky created needed momentum to reach heights in hoops not enjoyed before or since. LSU once went 27-0 in the league during the final two seasons of Bob Pettit in 1953-54. The three periods in the post-Pettit era indicate the amazing run for LSU basketball from 1977 to 1993 when the Tigers challenged Kentucky for supremacy.

LSU Basketball SEC Records 1955-2018*

Years                                     Record                                  Percent                       SEC losing seasons

1955-1977                            126-214                                                          37.1                        16

1977-1993                            186-98                                                 65.5                        1**

1994-2018                            167-235                                                      41.5                             15

1955-2018                            491-547                                             47.3                        32                                          

Through* Eight SEC games in 2018

**Brown’s lone losing season in the SEC between 1977 and 1993 was in 1987. His team was 8-10 in the league, but came within a basket of going to the Final Four in New Orleans. The Tigers were eliminated in the NCAA Elite Eight by Indiana in a 77-76 contest. The Hoosiers defeated UNLV and Syracuse at the Superdome to win a third NCAA title for Bob Knight.

 

LSU has collected as many league titles in basketball as the Tigers have secured in football, but the hoops program has experienced accelerated highs and lows amid its eleven conference crowns. Removing Dale Brown’s 16 best seasons leaves LSU with a winning percentage below 40 percent for the other 48 seasons in the SEC since the glory years of Pettit.

Will Wade shows signs of becoming the best coach at the PMAC since Brown was stirring the masses with stirring wins and even more memorable quips. The reality is that it is much more difficult for LSU to win consistently in basketball than it is in football and baseball.

The victory over Kentucky 480 months ago was a catalyst for an unprecedented era of excellence on the court for LSU. Many of the best players during that span arrived at the Deaf Dome from other states: Macklin and Higgs from Kentucky; Scales and Shaquille O’Neal from Texas; Sims, Al Green and Jerry Reynolds from New York; Cook from New Jersey; John Williams from California; Ricky Blanton from Florida; Chris Jackson from Mississippi.

Since Harry Rabenhorst retired in 1957, Jay McCreary, Frank Truitt, Press Maravich, John Brady, Trent Johnson and Johnny Jones were unable to post winning records in the SEC. Only Brown cracked the SEC basketball barrier for LSU, but the man from Minot logged four sad seasons to close his career. Even with five character building seasons to start his run in Baton Rouge and a disappointing finish, Brown won 238 of 438 league dates, a winning percentage of 54.3 percent.

If Will Wade produces a winning conference ledger, it will be because he is a superior strategist and recruiter. LSU is place where only the most exceptional basketball coaches can thrive long-term, and the program inherited by Wade was at a low ebb. His 3-5 SEC record as this column is written is a heroic achievement. The young maestro shows signs of recapturing the magic of 40 Februarys ago, almost five years before Wade was born.

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