Three decades later, LSU basketball coach Johnny Jones can still enjoy a hearty laugh about one of his top memories from the Tigers’ improbable 1986 Final Four run.
Then an assistant on Dale Brown’s staff, Jones recalled the NCAA Southeast regional final that propelled their 11th-seeded team into the Final Four — which, at the time, was the lowest-seeded team to advance to the national semifinals.
Jones said when No. 1 seed Kentucky arrived at The Omni in Atlanta for the regional final with LSU, the destination sign on the windshield of the Wildcats’ bus read “Dallas” — site of the Final Four.
When it departed a few hours later, after a 59-57 loss to an LSU team it had already defeated three times that season, Jones said the sign on the bus read “Chartered.”
“We used it as motivation,” Tigers guard-turned-center Ricky Blanton said recently. “Everyone was well aware of it.”
Big Blue went down with a thud on a nifty backdoor cut by Blanton, who snuck behind the Kentucky defense in the waning seconds to take a perfect pass from Don Redden for a game-winning layin.
“I was just the recipient of a great pass,” Blanton said. “We spread the floor and went five-wide, and everybody else garnered the attention. Don started to make a move to the basket and Kenny Walker, who was guarding me, went over to help.
“When Don threw it to me, I tried to get it out of my hands as fast as I could, because Kenny could jump out of the gym. In the pictures, you can see his hand two feet above the rim. How he didn’t block it, I don’t know.”
Blanton, who now owns an insurance agency and is the color analyst for LSU radio, will forever be remembered by Tigers fans for running down the floor wildly waving his arms in celebration.
“We called it the ‘Ricky Shuffle,’ ” guard Anthony Wilson said with a laugh. “He was running down the court rolling his hands up in the air.”
While it was huge, the upset of third-ranked Kentucky was only a part of a strange season. LSU had to overcome a chicken pox outbreak and academic problems to some key players to even get an NCAA invite as one of the last teams in.
Then, LSU’s tournament journey was anything but routine.
That was especially true when you consider the Tigers turned giant-killers in beating sixth-seeded Purdue, No. 3 seed Memphis State and second-seeded Georgia Tech just to get a fourth shot at Kentucky.
“That team, really, wasn’t going anywhere,” Brown said last week. “We had one NBA player (John Williams). What they did was absolutely remarkable.”
Even though it was a rough season, LSU, which eventually went 26-12, had good fortune on its side at tournament time.
The Tigers played the first- and second-round games on their home floor, which is no longer allowed in the tournament. They tripped Purdue 94-87 in double overtime, then eliminated Memphis 83-81.
Against Memphis, LSU went toe-to-toe with the nation’s 12th-ranked team before Wilson grabbed a loose ball and banked it for the game-winner at the buzzer.
“That’s part of my life, part of my history,” Wilson said. “Don missed the shot and I was in the right place at the right time.”
Naturally, Wilson and Blanton both get asked about their huge plays a lot around this time of the year.
“People talked about that shot for a long time,” said Wilson, who owns a restaurant in Alexandria and has three sons whom he has shared his famous shot with over the years. “My kids love it when people accidentally find out I’m their dad, and they ask me about it.”
For his part, however, Wilson doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on it.
“I don’t brag about it, or bring it up,” he said, “but it was a fun time.”
In fact, he said one of the things he’ll never forget about their magical run, which ended with an 88-77 loss to Louisville in the national semifinals, was seeing UK coach Eddie Sutton react to Blanton’s bucket by slamming the towel to the floor.
Blanton said he remembers the Kentucky fans who greeted them at their hotel after an unlikely 70-64 regional semifinal win over Georgia Tech.
“The Kentucky fans were cheering us because they were going to play us instead of (Tech All-Americans) John Salley and Mark Price,” Blanton said. “They automatically thought they were going to Dallas.”
But after beating the odds all season long, LSU had one more miracle in them.
“That was a true team that cared about each other on and off the court,” Wilson said. “We believed in the system coach Brown and our other coaches had in place.
“I hear people say (Brown) was a great recruiter and motivator, but he was a great coach, too. I tell that to everybody. He gave us a plan and we had to execute it.”