NEW YORK — Whatever the NIT is, be it ever so humble, UCLA's Bruins reached its final, where they'll get to meet their opponents of choice, Indiana and Bob Knight, authentic bits of Americana whom they hope to whittle down.
Is this a great tournament or what?
This time it wasn't because the tournament committee fed the Bruins another opponent on their home court, but Louisville's Cardinals in Madison Square Garden. The Bruins took a nine-point lead Wednesday night, lost it, went back ahead on Nigel Miguel's 20-footer and won, 75-66.
A crowd of 9,474 watched, which left lots of room in the 19,500-seat arena. Perhaps a third had left by the end of the second game, but the Bruins didn't notice.
Friday, UCLA gets Indiana, a 74-67 winner over Tennessee. It's the matchup they all seemed to want: the Bruins, the NIT, the USA cable network.
Brad Wright, who'd just scorched Barry Sumpter for 23 points and 12 rebounds, said he'd always wanted to play a Knight team.
"I always wanted to beat one," he added. "I don't mean that cocky. I really admire him, on the court."
Miguel asked Coach Walt Hazzard if he could guard IU's Steve Alford before the Bruins even hit the dressing room.
"I've always wanted to guard him," Miguel said. "He played in the Olympics, he's one of the best point guards in the nation. I just want to make a name for myself . . .
"And I know Coach (Hazzard) has always wanted to go head-to-head with Bobby Knight."
"Bobby Knight was the USA coach who won the gold medal," Hazzard said. "I'm a gold-medal winner, too (Hazzard played on the victorious '64 team at Tokyo). I thought I'd slip that in."
First they had to deal with the Cardinals, who weren't exactly the same team they'd led by 22 points in Pauley in February and beaten by 10.
Denny Crum was now starting freshman Mike Abram at guard. Abram, 1 for 6 with two points, was something less than the second coming of Darrell Griffith, but he did give the Cardinals enough quickness to play man-to-man instead of the zone that the Bruins had riddled.
The Bruins came out a little wild, throwing shots up from all over, as if those were 9,474 NBA scouts watching. Reggie Miller missed his first two shots from a total of about 48 feet, let the man guarding him, Manuel Forrest, break away both times, and was pulled. That wasn't the reason, though.
"My jock broke," Miller said.
Louisville jumped into early leads of 10-6, 14-10, 18-15, 23-21. Then the Bruins got them. Wright went 8:21 before he scored his first points on a rebound, then got seven more points by halftime. Miller had 10 and UCLA led, 36-33.
Then they came out of the dressing room and scored six straight points, on Montel Hatcher's 18-footer, Wright's long one-handed tip-in, and, after Wright blocked Jeff Hall's drive, Miller's two free throws. UCLA led, 42-33.
But the Cardinals came back and got them. With 5:33 left, Billy Thompson drilled a 15-footer from the baseline, and it was 56-56.
With 5:07 left, Miguel, once feared only by Bruin fans, knocked one in from the corner. UCLA led, again, 58-56.
"Nigel hit one from the dead corner," Crum said later. "He took the shot we wanted him to take and he made the shot. If he'd missed and we'd gone down the other end and scored, it might have been an entirely different game.
"But he made the shot. That's your senior leadership that I was talking about. Those are the things Milt Wagner (his senior guard, lost early in the season) would do for us, want that shot in that situation and make it."
Miguel: "My shot was off and on tonight. I missed some I should have made and I made some nobody thought I was going to make . . . It plays on your emotions. You have to be very strong. Before every game, I say, 'Hey, I'm a senior.' I really like to have the game won or lost in my hands. I don't want to put that pressure on a younger player . . .
"I almost took that shot one or two seconds before. My man was hedging, up and back. I measured it up. I think Brad and CJ (Craig Jackson) were posting up. But I've practiced that shot a whole lot. He (the defender) went back, and I just bent my knees and let it go."
At the other end, Thompson's pass to Sumpter went out of bounds. Wright scored on a rebound on Hatcher's miss and the Bruins were back ahead, 60-56.
After that, they shot free throws and held on. Now they get to go for the big one, or the little big one.
Indiana, the NIT favorite, showed how a Knight team can finish seventh in the Big 10.
The Hoosiers have an offense that consists of two players, Alford and Uwe Blab. They are, in the words of a suddenly compassionate Knight, "not greatly endowed physically. We're not overly quick and we don't jump real well." Tennessee tied them on the boards with a front line that went 6-7, 6-6, 6-4, to Indiana's 7-2, 6-8, 6-6.
The Hoosiers took a 12-point lead in the first half and spent the second fighting for their lives. With 9:54 left, the Volunteers had a 57-56 lead. Blab had his fourth foul. IU hadn't scored in 3:35.
This time, the Hoosiers survived. Alford hit two perimeter shots, and reserve guard Dan Dakich, whom Knight hadn't even used until the game was 30 minutes old, hit two more and the Tennessee rally faded. In the last two minutes, Blab and Alford hit seven of their eight free throws.
Crum, asked about UCLA-IU: "Indiana is going to have to shoot well, and it's going to have to do a better job on the boards than it did against Tennessee. UCLA is an excellent rebounding team."
Indiana will still be the favorite. Knight can still coach some defense.