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Iowa vs. Georgetown ‘80 Final Four

Lute Olson and John Thompson - Coaching icons

Georgetown Hoyas...
John Thompson was a legend. So was Lute Olson. In 1980, they faced off for a trip to the Final Four.
Photo by Focus on Sport via Getty Images

The college basketball world lost two icons in the last week of August. Lute Olson and John Thompson II passed on August 27 and 30 respectively. Thompson accrued 596 wins in his career and Olson accumulated 781. Thompson won a national championship in 1984 and Olson won one in 1997. That’s some coaching royalty right there. I went back and re-watched the game where these two went head-to-head in on March 16, 1980; the winner would get to the Final Four. At the time I was 10 years old. Lute!, Lute!, Lute! made Iowa basketball a must-see-TV event in the state at that time. My parents would host or go to their friends’ houses for the games. If the game watch was at our house, my siblings and I would watch the game on a crappy TV somewhere else in the house (ok, the picture quality sucked on everything back then, but I digress). The Hawks were 22-8 coming in; Iowa was 8-7 when star Ronnie Lester was out, 14-1 in games that he played. Georgetown was 26-5. Interestingly enough, one of G’Town’s losses was to Drake. Lewis Lloyd (one of Coach McCaffery’s teammates in “AAU”) averaged 30 and 15 that year for the Bulldogs.

Iowa was led by Ronnie Lester. Magic Johnson once described Lester as the best point guard he had ever faced. Let that sink in. The commentator for the game at The Spectrum that day was Gary Thompson (former Iowa State All-American). He mentioned that Lester was at 75-80% physically for the game. Thompson also described #12 as a “shadow of himself”. I don’t remember a healthy Ronnie Lester, but an unhealthy Lester was pretty dang good. It was evident in the game that Lester wasn’t moving very well. He was held scoreless in the first half. He seemed like he was only trying to facilitate for his teammates. He didn’t look to create for himself at all. Defensively you could see his skill and quickness, but it was more with his quick hands than with his pressure defense. It appeared to me that Coach Olson at halftime told Lester he had to be more assertive in the second half as he was much more of a factor.

Georgetown was known for being an up-and-down, full-court pressure defense team. They weren’t overly tall, but they were athletic and physical. The Hoyas did have a few tall bigs, but when they were in, they tended to play more zone. I was surprised by this. In hindsight, I can’t imagine Coach Thompson would play that much zone against the Hawks again. Vince Brookins had an incredible NCAA tournament that year. He continued this in this game with 16 of the Hawks’ 32 first half points. Kevin Boyle had a solid game for Iowa with 14 points. He was voted a 2nd team All-Big-10 player that year. Iowa did not have a first-teamer as Lester was injured for much of the year. Georgetown crashed the offensive boards in the first half to the tune of 4-5 offensive boards. No doubt Coach Olson stressed the importance of boxing out in the second half. The Hoyas’ second-chance opportunities were diminished after halftime.

Iowa played a 7-8 man rotation for most of the year. In this game the Hawks brought Steve Waite and freshman Bobby Hansen off the bench. Occasionally Iowa would go with Steve Krafcisin and Steve Waite on the court at the same time. Iowa ran a passing game/motion type of offense. Neither Special K or Waite were someone who you would pound the ball in to, but both were solid post players. Together the two 6-10 posts averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds. Iowa was predicated on shooting (and knocking down at a 49% clip) mid-range jump shots. The game has changed with the three point shot. I love old-school basketball. The Hoyas led by as much as 14 in the first half of the game, taking a 42-32 halftime lead. Even though we all know the outcome of the game, it has the “this is going to be a blowout” feel to the game.

The second half involved the Hawks chipping away at the lead only to have the Hoyas score to put the lead at double figures. Eric “Sleepy” Floyd was a flat-out stud, scoring 31 points. In my opinion, the Iowa bench was what won the game. Steve Waite and Bobby Hansen were the difference in the second half. Waite converted a couple of offensive rebound put-backs and Hansen, described as “not a good free throw shooter” (53.9%) was 4 for 4 and hit a mid-range pull-up jumper in the second half. Bobby Hansen gained valuable experience that year with Ronnie Lester out for 15 games with an injured knee.

Ok, full disclosure. This game occurred almost 40 years ago. I found myself saying, “Let’s go Hawks! Let’s go Hawks!” aloud; to myself. Hawkeyes pulled within two 68-70 with 5:59 to go. It didn’t feel like Iowa should still be in the game. A testament to Coach Olson and the toughness of this squad. Vince Brookins hit a big shot and Kevin Boyle hit a free throw line jumper for the Hawks to go up 78-76 with a little over 2:30 in the game. At this point I audibly dropped a “Holy S%*&!” (once again to myself). Iowa went into a zone. The Hoyas held the ball for almost 45 seconds. It looked as if they were trying to pull Iowa out of the zone. Georgetown then took a timeout. It was interesting that they took air out of the ball, especially knowing the outcome of the game. Georgetown scored to tie it at 78-78. The Hawks then got possession of the ball and went into their patented “4 corners” offense with 1:55 left in the game. At this point I’m saying to my dog a “Go Hawks!” and a “Let’s Go Hawks!” with the crowd. Iowa takes the clock down to 14 seconds with Lester, Arnold, Boyle, Brookins, and Waite on the court. Lester inbounds on a side out of bounds after the TO. Ball goes into Boyle. It is intended to come right back to Lester but he is denied. Boyle keeps it and dribbles up the court. Boyle passes to Waite on the left side who fakes and attacks the basket. Waite scores and is fouled! Waite, a 62% FT shooter, hits the FT and I sing “In Heaven There Is No Beer” to my empty room (I’d imagine that started with football? Not sure when...). Georgetown gets a tip in and the Hawks cut down the nets. What. A. Game!

The keys to the game. Iowa remained calm and patient; it felt like it could be a blowout a few different times. Iowa did a better job of boxing out in the second half. Vince Brookins had another great game offensively. Bobby Hansen and Steve Waite had huge contributions off the bench. Iowa, a 70% FT team during the season, was 19/20 95%, from the line. The Hawks only committed 6 turnovers vs. the Hoyas. This against an athletic, quick, aggressive team.

The 2020-21 Hawkeye basketball team has great promise. Many ranked teams were defeated in the ‘79-80 NCAA tournament. Coach Lute Olson said, “It’s the TEAMS that are still playing.” This Hawk squad was a true team. Thanks, Coaches Thompson and Olson.