Dale Brown’s last Final Four team had no right being there. That’s what makes the 1985-86 LSU Tigers one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA tournament history.
The ‘80s were the glory years for LSU basketball and Daddy Dale. The Tigers made the NCAA Tournament eight times in the decade and were No. 1 seeds in back-to-back tournaments (1980 and 1981). The ‘81 team has the honor of being LSU’s first ever Final Four team and after missing the tournament in two straight years, the Tigers returned in 1984 where they would appear in the next 10 NCAA Tournaments.
But the 1986 team is the one that went deepest and the one nobody saw coming.
Expectations were high in Baton Rouge coming into the 1985-86 season despite Jerry Reynolds going pro and getting selected 22nd overall in the 1985 NBA Draft. The Tigers opened the year ranked 14th and climbed as high as 8 in the polls thanks to a 14-0 start.
Around Christmas time is when the wheels began to fall off for Dale Brown’s team, especially in the front court. Zoran Jovanovich was lost for the remainder of the season after hurting his knee during the Christmas break; Nikita Wilson failed two courses in the fall and was deemed academically ineligible for the spring semester. This was on top of two other players, Damon Vance and Dennis Brown, being academically ineligible for the entirety of the season; and depending on who you ask Tito Horford was either dismissed from the team or left voluntarily. Did I mention on top of all that the Tigers were hit with a Chickenpox outbreak that put John Williams and Bernard Woodside in the hospital for a week and forced LSU into quarantine?
With essentially no big men left to work with, Ricky Blanton had to do his best rookie Magjc Johnson impression playing center in the 1980 NBA Finals for a Tiger team that ended the regular season on a 7-10 run.
But it’s not how you start it’s how you finish and the 1986 Tigers were able to get into the NCAA tournament as an 11-seed and became the first ever 11 to make the Final Four. And while the feat has been replicated (2006 George Mason, 2011 VCU, 2018 Loyola Chicago, and 2021 UCLA) what make’s LSU’s run so special is they’re the only team to ever eliminate the 1, 2, and 3 seeds in their region along the way.
After surviving a double OT thriller against Purdue in round one, LSU rallied from a six-point halftime deficit to beat the 3-seed Memphis State 83-81 in the PMAC. Don Redden led LSU in scoring with 23 points, while Blanton and Williams both had doubles (11 and 11 for Blanton, 19 and 13 for Williams who had just gotten over his battle with Chickenpox). But it was Anthony Wilson who was the hero beating the buzzer with a prayer just inside the free throw line that went off the glass and in.
LSU advanced to the tournament’s second weekend and beat Georgia Tech, the 2-seed, in the Sweet 16. Tech grabbed a four-point lead, its largest of the night, with 6:08 remaining before Redden tied the game up and gave LSU a lead they wouldn’t surrender with 3:08 remaining. Redden led all players with 27 points.
Finally, in the Elite Eight, LSU got some sweet revenge over Kentucky, the 1-seed, who had eliminated LSU from the SEC Tournament 15 days prior. Kentucky had not only knocked LSU out of the SEC Tournament, the Cats had beaten LSU two other times that season and was riding a 14-game winning streak and 21 straight over SEC opponents.
Kentucky struck first jumping on LSU 11-4 before the Tigers tied it up. LSU went into the half down a point before the teams traded leads four times in the second half. LSU was able to go up for good thanks to a pair of free throws by Ricky Blanton with 2:31 remaining.
The name of the NCAA Tournament is survive and advance right? LSU won its four tournament games by an average of four points.
Unfortunately for the Cinderella Tigers, the clock struck midnight in Dallas as LSU was beaten by Louisville 88-77.
Since LSU’s magical run ended 36 years ago the members of that team have gone their separate ways. Dale Brown coached at LSU for 11 more years and the court inside the PMAC was named after him earlier this year; Blanton coached Nicholls State for two years before joining the LSU Basketball radio broadcast team where he was the color commentator for eight seasons; Redden tragically died two years later in March of 1988 due to heart failure. Both Blanton and Redden were named to LSU’s All-Century team.
To date neither the LSU men’s or women’s basketball teams have won advanced past the national semifinal round but hopefully that will change with Will Wade and Kim Mulkey leading the way. Still while the 1986 team couldn’t bring home the national championship they live on forever as the first 11-seed to make the Final Four and slayed three giants along the way.