Coming off of two sub-par years, the University of Kansas’s men’s basketball team could breathe a sigh of relief after it secured a place in the 1981 NCAA Tournament by defeating Kansas State in the Big Eight Tournament title game. (It had been a particularly sweet tournament for KU, which in addition to beating its cross-state rival had eliminated Missouri in the semifinals.)
Led by senior Darnell Valentine, a four-time all-conference guard, the Jayhawks had bounced back from a miserable 1979-80 season in which it had posted a record of 15-14. As the men from Lawrence prepared for the 48-team NCAA field, their record stood at 22-7. The 1981 tournament would be the team’s 12th, and in six of the previous 11, the KU hoopsters had made their way to the final four. If the Jayhawks hoped to become the seventh to do so, they would need to play their best ball of the season.
As the seventh seed in the Midwest Regional, the Jayhawks did not draw the bye that the top four teams in their bracket did, and thus had to take on the 10th-seeded Rebels from the University of Mississippi for the right to advance to the second round. Ole Miss had earned a bid to the Big Dance by virtue of its unlikely victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. At 16-13, the Rebels could claim the somewhat dubious distinction of being the team with the worst record in the field of 48. They were not thrilled at having to travel to Wichita, which Ole Miss considered KU’s backyard, to take on the Big Eight champions in the first round.
The fact that the first round of the Midwest Regional would take place in Wichita, offered Valentine, who had been a High School All American at Wichita Heights High School, the opportunity play in his hometown for the first time in his collegiate career. Valentine’s return to Wichita, however, provided only one story line of the regional’s first round. Two others garnered at least as much attention: the future prospects of KU coach Ted Owens and the participation in the same regional of a local college, Wichita State.
Despite the Jayhawks’ berth in the NCAA Tournament, rumors circulated about the fate of Owens who had not taken his team to the Final Four in seven years, and who had subsequently fallen out of favor with many KU fans. Indeed even the national media had turned on the man who in 1978 had been honored by Basketball Weekly as the National Coach of the Year after leading the Jayhawks to a conference title and a record of 24-5. The March 1981 issue of Inside Sports, for example, had listed Owens as one of the most overrated coaches in college basketball. The editors of the magazine claimed that he was consistently out-coached by his conference peers, and for some inexplicable reason his Jayhawks “regularly lost to teams with less talent.” To add further insult the magazine quoted NBA scouts who claimed that Owens’s system handicapped his players’ chances of being selected early in the draft. The magazine ultimately concluded that the “noose hangs high for Owens.”
Although the relative merits of Owens as a coach provided the local papers with sufficient fodder to banter about, the most intriguing story line was easily the fact that the Wichita State Shockers were playing in the same regional as KU. Should both Kansas teams win their first two games, they would draw each other in the Sweet Sixteen, which was to be held in New Orleans, Louisiana. Of course this would be easier said than done, but if it were to happen, the Jayhawks would “have no choice,” as the University Daily Kansan asserted shortly after the brackets were announced, “but to play Wichita State.” The Athletic Department of the University of Kansas had apparently rebuffed repeated efforts on the part of the Shockers to arrange a meeting. For the “Shockers [had] long wanted to play KU,” the Kansan continued but, “the folks on Mount Oread [had] steadfastly refused.” As Wichita State was seeded sixth in the tournament, its fans could lay claim to supporting the best team in Kansas, at least until the two teams from the Sunflower State might square off on the hardwood.
Both teams took care of business in the first round as KU dispatched Ole Miss, despite allowing a 12-point advantage to dwindle to a 67-66 lead with time running out. A pair of free throws by KU guard Tony Guy with two seconds left in the game enabled the Jayhawks to hang on for a 69-66 win. Wichita State, on the other hand did not merely eke out a victory in the first round. Instead, the Shockers spanked Southern University 90-75. Their second round opponents, however, Arizona State and Iowa respectively, looked fairly daunting and, given the stunning upsets of a number of those teams which had been granted byes, neither the Sun Devils nor the Hawkeyes would overlook their lower-seeded opponents. (All told that year, eight of the 16 teams that had drawn byes lost in their first game of the tournament. Among those that fell were perennial powers Kentucky and Louisville, plus a UCLA team coached by Larry Brown, who would later become KU’s coach.)
With the loss of top-ranked DePaul and No.2 Oregon State, the third ranked Sun Devils of Arizona State remained the highest ranked team still alive in the tournament as they prepared to take the floor against Kansas. Led by sophomore guard Byron Scott, ASU looked like a clear favorite in the game, but it had not played in more than a week and was competing, as the Sun Devils’ coach Ned Wulk so eloquently asserted, on Kansas’s “semi-home court.” Arizona State never really woke up in the game as KU raced out to an early lead. Paced by Tony Guy’s career-high 36 points, the Jayhawks went on to crush the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional by a score of 88-71. Wichita State, on the other hand, managed to squeak by the 13th ranked Hawkeyes, 60-56. With both Kansas teams advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, the Sunflower State Showdown was set to take place in New Orleans the following weekend.
The last meeting between the two teams had come during the 1955-56 season when Phog Allen had agreed to take on a Shockers team coached by his former Jayhawk player and protégé, Ralph Miller. (In 1981, curiously enough, Miller was coach of one of the highest ranked teams that were upset in the NCAA tournament, the No. 2 ranked Oregon State team that fell in the second round to Kansas State.) The Jayhawks and the Shockers had played each other only three times prior to the meeting of the mid-1950s, which Allen’s team won. Indeed as of 1981, KU had never lost to the team from Wichita.
Antoine Carr, the star player for the Shockers, had ironically been a high school teammate of KU’s Valentine, and much was made of that connection in the days leading up to the contest. As fate would have it, however, neither player would steal the limelight in the Sweet Sixteen match up. Two rainbow shots on the part of a reserve guard would decide a game as evenly matched as the Las Vegas odds-makers (who had not favored either team) predicted.
Played in front of 34,060 fans, the largest crowd up to that time to attend a NCAA Tournament game (though a goodly number arrived in the second half in anticipation of the Arkansas-LSU contest that would follow), the game came down to the final minutes of play. With 56 seconds remaining in the game and the Jayhawks leading 65-62, Valentine uncharacteristically missed the front end of a one and one. Ten seconds later, the Shockers’ backup guard Mike Jones buried a bucket that pulled Wichita State to within one. On KU’s next possession, Valentine broke away for a lay up, but botched his attempt, and the ball rolled harmlessly off the front of the rim only to be rebounded by the Shockers. (Had Valentine not taken the shot, the Shockers would have been forced to foul and send KU to the line, but as the KU guard was continuing to play aggressively – playing to win, rather than to “not lose” – he risked the shot.) Wichita State held the ball for a final shot while KU crowded inside to prevent Carr from getting the ball. With four seconds left in the game, Jones let a loose a 25-foot desperation shot that swished through the net to give the team from Wichita a one-point lead.
Kansas called timeout and drew up a play in the hope of drawing a foul that would send them to the line. Thus as the Jayhawks prepared to inbound the ball, Valentine set a pick on the baseline. Kansas reserve Booty Neal ran the baseline looking like he intended to get the ball in play while Wichita State’s Jay Jackson trailed him. The play worked to perfection as Jackson crashed through Valentine. However, much to the chagrin of the KU faithful, no foul was called. With the play broken and no one to whom he might inbound the ball, Neal called time out. When play resumed, the Jayhawks’ inbounds pass sailed innocuously over everyone’s head and out of bounds. KU fouled a Shockers player as Wichita State took the ball in to send him to the line. Although the player missed his free throw, Kansas could not get off a decent shot and time expired.
As sports fans are wont to do, KU’s supporters griped about the officiating. Owens claimed that “30,000 people knew it was a foul except the three who didn’t call it,” and Valentine asserted, “it was kind of obvious [that he had been fouled], but all [he] got was a stare [from the official].” Wichita State fans were quick to point out that the game was not decided solely by the “phantom foul” (as the no-call was dubbed), but by the Shockers capitalizing on their chances while KU repeatedly blew its opportunities to put the game away. Both teams had shot less than 50 percent for the game, but Wichita State had out rebounded the Kansas team 37-24.
It was a tough loss for KU to swallow, and the “phantom foul” made it even more difficult. Indeed, in 1997, Kansas City Star journalist and KU basketball historian Blair Kerkhoff listed the game as one of the ten most memorable losses in the program’s history. For Wichita State, on the other hand, even a loss to LSU in the Elite Eight could not dim the smug satisfaction of having proven that they were, if only for one year, the best basketball team in the state.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas