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The Bruins get revenge - 1968
By Joe Gergen
For Sporting News


Lew Alcindor
The story of college basketball in 1968 was a tale of two games, two teams and one court. With nothing less than a No. 1 ranking and the national championship at stake, UCLA and Houston conducted perhaps the most memorable home-and-home series in the sport's history.

Remarkably, the two games, staged half a continent apart, were played on the same floor.

The first meeting, in Houston, opened the sport to new vistas. The second encounter, at the Final Four in Los Angeles, then demonstrated nothing really had changed. If the former suggested that even the Bruins of Lew Alcindor were not invincible, the latter proved just how extraordinary was their defeat.

Even before the unbeaten teams walked to the center jump circle on the night of January 20, it was apparent that they were participants in an event of historic significance. Every seat in the mammoth Astrodome plus some 4,000 standing-room positions had been sold -- a total of 52,693 paid admissions.

In addition, a network of more than 150 television stations in 49 states had been hastily assembled to bring the game to millions of households. The setting was spectacular if bizarre.

Located in the middle of the world's first enclosed baseball-football stadium was a portable court on loan from the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which was scheduled to host the NCAA Tournament semifinal and championship games in March.

Arena officials had agreed to provide the court free of charge, although it cost $l0,000 to convert the Astrodome for basketball, a process that required trucking 225 floor panels from and to the West Coast. The court was surrounded by strips of AstroTurf and sat in isolated splendor, more than 100 feet from the nearest seats.

What seared the game into the nation's consciousness, of course, was the result. Houston's 71-69 upset was as colossal as the facility in which it occurred.

UCLA had won 47 consecutive games, including all 43 it had played since Alcindor joined the varsity, and appeared as unbeatable as any team in NCAA annals. Furthermore, the Cougars edged the Bruins not by playing a slowdown game, but by taking it to Alcindor.

Granted, Alcindor was not at his best for the meeting. Only the week before, the consensus All-American had scratched his eyeball against California. He sat out the next two games and wore an eye patch for the better part of the week. He appeared distracted by the scene and affected by the lighting, making only 4-of-18 field-goal attempts in the grips of Houston's 1-3-1 zone.

But UCLA did not lose the game. The Cougars won it, thanks to a magnificent performance by 6-foot-9 senior Elvin Hayes. The consensus All-American scored 29 points in the first half and 10 more in the second -- including the deciding free throws with 28 seconds left -- grabbed 15 rebounds, blocked eight shots and even managed four assists.

The sound of 50,000 fans chanting "E, E, E" created an unprecedented sensation.

The victory was Houston's 18th in succession since a loss to UCLA in the 1967 national semifinals, and it boosted the Cougars from second place in the wire-service polls to first.

"I hope they come back to L.A. undefeated," Bruins guard Lucius Allen said. "That would be very nice."

Houston did just that, routing Loyola of Chicago, Louisville and Texas Christian in the Midwest Regional to carry a 31-0 record, as well as the No. 1 ranking, into the Final Four. As for the Bruins, they quickly rebounded from their first defeat and won the rest of their games, dismissing stubborn New Mexico State and Santa Clara in the West Regional.

UCLA and Houston were bracketed for a rematch in the semifinals at the Sports Arena, whose court had been returned from the Astrodome and was back in its normal setting. Only now it was the Final Floor.

As had been the case the previous year in Louisville, North Carolina won the East Regional and an underdog team from Ohio, in this case Ohio State, was representing the Mideast.

But the attention in Los Angeles focused almost exclusively on the UCLA-Houston game. The Cougars were treated like the sudden celebrities they were, visiting movie sets, appearing on TV shows and resting their heads in a Beverly Hills hostelry.

Never at a loss for words, Hayes said this was the rubber match of the series and he didn't want to hear another word about Alcindor's eye injury.

"Last year, when they beat us in the tournament, I didn't make excuses," he said. "All I said was that he had beaten me, but I wasn't going to believe he was better than me until I had one more look. Well, I had one more look and I won. We won.

"I guess this will settle it, best two out of three."

Hayes, already selected Player of the Year for his performance in the regular season, had been at his best in the tournament, averaging 41 points in three games. But this was a UCLA team that had been stung for the first time in two years. The result was an almost perfect game by an almost perfect team.

Start with the defense, because that's what the Bruins did. At the suggestion of assistant coach Jerry Norman, coach John Wooden instructed forward Lynn Shackelford to shadow Hayes while the other four players aligned themselves in a diamond-shaped zone. Guard Mike Warren was stationed at the top of the key, Allen and forward Mike Lynn on the wings and Alcindor under the basket.

Hayes, growing more and more discouraged by Shackelford's relentless pressure as the game wore on, virtually was eliminated from the Houston offense. He finished with only three field goals in 10 attempts and a total of 10 points.

UCLA also stepped up its full-court press, creating easy baskets. And unlike that night in the Astrodome, the outside shooting was sure. The Bruins used a 21-5 run midway through the first half to bolt ahead, 41-24, and a timeout by Cougars coach Guy Lewis failed to slow the momentum. The lead was 22 at the half, then 28, 35 and, at its peak, 44 (95-51).

Only massive substitutions held the final score to 101-69.

"That's the greatest exhibition of basketball I've ever seen," Lewis said.

The victory was so complete that Alcindor shared scoring honors with Allen and Lynn. Each had 19 points. Big Lew added 18 rebounds and led a defense that limited the Cougars to 28.2 percent field-goal shooting.

"Our mental attitude wasn't right," said Houston forward Theodis Lee, who was 2-of-15 from the field.

The Bruins, who sent the hometown crowd of 15,742 into a frenzy, had no such problem.

"We haven't really said anything publicly," Warren said after the Bruins qualified to meet North Carolina in the championship game, "but we're a vindictive team.

"We've been looking forward to this game for a long time."

They had but one day to look forward to the Tar Heels, who had beaten Ohio State, 80-66, in the other semifinal game. That wouldn't be a problem.

"We're not looking past North Carolina," said Warren, a senior whose greatest fame would come years later on "Hill Street Blues," a TV show in which he portrayed Officer Bobby Hill. "We'll run them back down South, too."

Even if the Bruins weren't looking past the Tar Heels, their supporters certainly were. Supremely confident that the victory over Houston locked up a second consecutive title, the fans didn't even fill the Sports Arena. A crowd of 14,438 attended the championship game.

Tar Heels coach Dean Smith had hoped to slow the tempo of the game with his spread offense, the four corners, and to take only high-percentage shots.

But the presence of Alcindor in the middle ruined the strategy. He rejected at least seven shots and altered countless others, and the Tar Heels made an unacceptable 34.9 percent of their field-goal tries.

Alcindor was equally devastating on offense, scoring a game-high 34 points against Carolina's ineffective man-to-man in a decisive 78-55 triumph. The 23-point spread was the largest in championship-game history.

UCLA's total domination of the Tar Heels and Cougars led to the selection of four Bruins -- Alcindor, Allen, Warren and Shackelford -- for the all-tournament team along with Carolina's Larry Miller, a consensus All-America forward.

Alcindor, of course, reigned as the outstanding player for the second time in two years. He was, Smith decided, "the greatest player who ever played the game."

And he had one more year of eligibility -- one more year in which to do something no player or group of classmates had ever done before.

"Our next goal," said Allen, speaking for himself and his fellow Bruins of the class of 1969, "is a third NCAA title next year."

Said Wooden: "It's difficult to do, very difficult. Look back through the history of the NCAA, Isn't it difficult?"

Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.


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