(Part I) The next time Duke and Louisville met the game was nationally televised but almost no one saw it in person. And full disclosure, that February 18, 1979 game was my favorite Duke-Louisville game until last season.
Let’s set the stage. Many people remember that 1979 season only for the way it ended and it certainly was a far cry from the 1978 magic carpet ride that took Duke all the way to the title game. But until Bob Bender’s appendectomy in the ACC Tournament Duke actually had a better 1979 season than 1978 season, tying North Carolina for the ACC regular-season title and spending the entire season ranked in the top-8.
Duke’s lineup was formidable. Junior Mike Gminski was the center. He was the 1979 ACC Player of the Year. Sophomore bookends Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard started at forward, junior Bob Bender was the point guard and star senior guard Jim Spanarkel was the team’s glue. Jim Suddath, John Harrell, and Vince Taylor were key reserves.
Duke went into the game ranked fifth. But Louisville was ranked ninth and had the core of the team that would win the 1980 NCAA title, star guard Darrell Griffith, Wiley Brown, Eaves and Smith. Lanky center Scooter McCray would miss most of the 1980 season with an injury while Bobby Turner, their second-leading scorer in 1979, would flunk out.
But they were hale and hearty in 1979. The Cardinals were loaded.
About that non-crowd. Duke and Louisville met in Charlotte on a Sunday afternoon. It snowed. A lot. Nine inches, which is a lot for Charlotte, enough to turn a lot of ticket holders into television watchers.
Duke spent the entire game in a 2-3 zone, not unusual for Bill Foster’s teams. But Louisville also played a zone, designed to smother Gminski and force Duke to hit outside shots.
Duke hit them.
Bender wasn’t a big scorer but he knew when he was being left alone. He hit a couple of 20-footers and Duke was off to a 4-2 lead. Foster said after the game that he was afraid Duke would fall behind early and have to abandon its zone.
Not a problem. Duke made 10 of its first 13 shots from the field, jumping to a 20-6 lead.
It wasn’t all jump shots. Both teams thought they could run on the other. The high-flying Cardinals were just being called the Doctors of Dunk. But on this snowy afternoon in was Duke that dominated in transition.
In fact there were only three dunks in the game, all by Duke, Gminski, Banks and Dennard.
It was 47-28 at the half, a lead Duke extended to 24 points early in the second half. Louisville never got their second-half deficit under 14 and the final score was 88-72.
Banks led everyone with 23 points, 12 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals. He hit 10-of-14 from the field. Gminski had 22 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists, Spanarkel 16 points, Bender 10.
Senior forward Larry Williams led Louisville with 16 points. Griffith shot 5-for-18 and scored only 12 points. Derek Smith scored 9 points.
Foster called it Duke’s “best game of the season for 40 minutes.”
Denny Crum certainly was impressed.
“We’re not very big and we don’t have the size and strength to match Duke. So, we used a zone, hoping to keep the ball out of Mike Gminski’s hands. But their outside guys shot the eyes out of it. They’re the best team we’ve played all year.”
“We kept our composure, kept our poise,” Banks summed up. “We didn’t overpass the ball, didn’t overshoot it. We know when to shoot, when to pass.”
Duke was unable to build on the win to any significant extent. Duke lost its next game at Clemson 70-49, finished the regular season with a win over North Carolina in the “airball” game and went on to an injury-illness plagued post-season.
But as much as any game that season Duke ran and jumped and shot as well as we all expected, fulfilling the enormous promise of that talented team on that snowy afternoon, all the while shutting down the Doctors of Dunk.