Kentucky only got to the final four in 1984 out of sheer luck and cheating. Illinois was the better team but was robbed of their final four ticket by the referees and the NCAA who let Kentucky play on their home court for the Regionals.
Kentucky beat Illinois 54-51 in the Mideast regional finals in 1984. Illinois was having an excellent year, earning a co-championship in the Big-Ten conference. They were led by players such as Efrem Winters, Doug Altenberger and Bruce Douglass.
Kentucky had assembled an incredible team in 1984. Sam Bowie, their 7 foot 1 All-American was finally healthy after a number of seasons of serious injuries. He was joined by 6 foot 10 Melvin Turpin, a big center with an excellent shooting touch and Kenny Walker, a wiry 6'8 forward who would later in his career become a first team All-American and finish his career as the number two all-time leading scorer at Kentucky.
The game was closely played but came down to two key plays by the quick Kentucky guard Dicky Beal. Coming off a time-out with under a minute to play, Beal took the ball and dribbled around the perimeter killing clock. He saw an opening down the left side of the lane, took it and squirted in for a lay-up to put UK up for good. Later, Beal had the ball on a break-out. He crossed half court and put on the brakes because three Illini defenders were converging on him. His momentum caused him to go forward a step, however he kept his pivot (back) foot down. A time out was signaled and called for by Beal. Illini fans claim that Beal traveled on the play.
After the game, Illinois head coach Lou Henson remarked "we couldn't win, we had no chance under the conditions presented here." He continued "The thing is we played such a courageous game and we lost, nevertheless. A break here and there and we, not Kentucky, would be on the way to the Finals next weekend in Seattle."
A few years later, the NCAA instituted a rule stipulating that no team can play on their home floor during the regionals. This was later expanded to include first and second round games.
Kentucky won the game on the court in a head-to-head matchup and that is all that should matter. For those who are interested, the fouls were called 15-14 in Kentucky's favor. No player on the Illinois team had more than 3 fouls in the game.
If people want to claim that Illinois was the better team, that simply was not true. Kentucky had shown through the season that they were a legitimate contender for the title (along with Houston, Georgetown and North Carolina). They earned their number one seed by going 26-4 prior to the tournament, winning the SEC regular season title and the SEC tournament. It was unfortunate that Illinois had to play in Rupp Arena but those were the rules at the time and Kentucky earned the spot they received.
Illinois was only a third seed in the tourney. Kentucky played Illinois earlier in the season in Champaign under extremely adverse travelling conditions and won. They also beat the other Big Ten co-champion Purdue along with Indiana that season.
Jim Savage claims in his book The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament that "Beal careened into Illinois's Bruce Douglas just across midcourt - and the call went against Douglas." This claim is incorrect in that as mentioned, the difference in opinion had to do with the apparent travel, not any foul. After a number of seconds later, Beal was still looking to pass the ball and was covered up by Douglas from behind and dragged out of bounds. Douglas was then whistled for the obvious foul.
Savage then continues to muck up the story, "I am not going to cry about the officiating," said Illinois coach Jim [sic] Henson, "but we cannot come to Kentucky and have the fouls go against us 11-2 with about a minute left and win the ball game." (by Jim Savage, The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, Dell Publishing, 1990, pg. 531.)
The fact is however that the reason the Illini were saddled with fouls in the second half compared to Kentucky was that the Illini had been playing a tough man-to-man full court press while Kentucky was playing a passive zone. The fouls which were called were all obvious. Henson also overstates his case because Illinois did have many chances to tie the game in the closing minutes but failed to convert.
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