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Keith Taylor: Wildcats have history with Houston, defeated Cougars during early 80s glory days


Houston had it going on in the early 1980s and was a consistent national title contender.

During a three-year span from 1982-84, the Cougars made three appearances in the Final Four and were national runner-up twice. Following a loss to Georgetown in the 1984 national championship game, the Cougars went into hiding and “Phi Slama Jama” became a thing of the past.

Houston rarely lost during those three seasons with a program that featured future Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Houston lost just eight times in two years and one of those setbacks was a 54-52 loss to North Carolina State in the 1983 national title game, following by a loss to Georgetown the following year in Seattle.

The Cougars’ coach at the time — Guy Lewis — was known for his plaid jackets and polka-dot towel. Lewis guided Houston to five Final Four appearances and coached Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes.

It marked the last time Houston made the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, a streak that came to a close following a 74-59 win over Ohio State on Sunday night in the second round. Despite the team’s success in the NCAA Tournament more than three decades ago, current coach Kelvin Sampson said it’s irrelevant to his current squad.

“I think it means more to the fans than it does us,” he said. “1984? These guys weren’t born. So that means nothing to them, you know. Like when they came here, everybody likes to talk about Phi Slama Jama. The kids didn’t know who they were. They never heard ever them. That’s for the old guys.”

The new crew has been part of Houston’s resurgence in college basketball. The Cougars defeated Southeastern Conference regular-season champion LSU, Central Florida, which nearly stunned Duke Sunday night and Cincinnati this season. The Cougars are currently 33-3 and making waves in the tourney again following 35-year hiatus.

“The five-year thing is significant — the 30 years is not — since ’83 it really isn’t,” Sampson said. “That means a lot to our fans, though. They take pride in it. I saw a lot of proud Cougars up there behind us tonight and the ones I was happiest for were the guys that’s been supporting this program since those days.”

Kentucky and Houston have only played five times, as recently as 2007, but the Wildcats defeated the Cougars during the team’s glory days in the 1980s. Kentucky’s twin towers squad, featuring Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin, overwhelmed Olajuwon and the Cougars at Rupp Arena. The star that day was Kenny Walker, who led Kentucky with 20 points.

This time, the two teams will meet for the first time in the Big Dance with a trip to the Elite Eight hanging in the balance. Like past history, Sampson said current successes won’t play a role in the outcome.

“Everybody is good,” he said. “You can lose to anybody in this tournament.”

That’s why they call it March Madness.

Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Houston, 10 p.m. Friday. TV/Radio: TBS, UK Radio Network

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.


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