by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Final Four rematches are nothing new. Indeed, we're on the cusp of a fourth meeting between Florida and Kentucky if those two SEC entrants advance to the Monday night championship game. Which would not be the first time for such a matchup in the title clash. Remember 1985, and underdog Villanova against Georgetown? The Hoyas pulled the hat trick in three previous meetings, including at the Big East Tournament that year, but the last game was the one that counted: Villanova, 66-64. UK fans can thus take heart this weekend in "North Texas" (why the NCAA is using that destination label instead of Arlington, where the games will be played at Jerry Jones Stadium, the familiar Dallas-Fort Worth, or the popular "Metroplex" instead, continues to puzzle).

There will also be a rematch in the Florida-UConn Saturday semifinal, as the Gators and Wildcats played a white-knuckler way back on December 1, won by the Huskies 65-64 on Shabazz Napier's buzzer-beater. And in the TGS annals from the past, a couple of semifinal rematches stand out in Final Four lore alongside many of the memorable championship games. Both happened to involve John Wooden's UCLA Bruins in the days when the Big Dance was also popularly referred to as the "UCLA Invitational," when Wooden's teams would qualify an astounding ten seasons in a row from 1967-76, and win ten crowns in twelve seasons between 1963-64 and 1974-75.

UCLA also didn't win one of those rematches, in a result that still resonates among old-time college hoop followers, 40 years later. But prior to that 1974 Final Four rematch of a regular-season game against NC State, there was another highly-publicized return battle six years earlier.

We forgive those of the ESPN generation who might not realize there was a second meeting between UCLA and Houston in 1968, after the memorable Astrodome game played on January 20 of that year. We have never minimized the importance of Houston's 71-69 win that night in January; in fact, we have written about it on these pages before, and consider it to be perhaps the most significant college basketball game of our lifetime. But we also know the most important college game that 1967-68 season between Elvin Hayes' Cougars and Lew Alcindor's Bruins didn't take place at the Astrodome. Rather, it was two months later at the L.A. Sports Arena in the national semifinal game. And in the rematch, it would be UCLA with the hometown edge.

Although you might not know it from the way the media seem to have conveniently forgotten about UCLA-Houston other than the Astrodome classic, the fact is the teams met in Final Fours in both 1967 and 1968. UCLA won handily in 1967 at Louisville, 73-58 (written about on these pages last year when we reviewed Alcindor's dominant sophomore season). But the Houston regular-season win in January of '68 was such an overwhelming storyline, partly because of UCLA's 47-game win streak being snapped by the Cougars, and also because of the novelty of the Astrodome venue, as well as being the first truly nationally-syndicated TV game, that anticipation for an inevitable Final Four rematch began to build almost as soon as the Astrodome game was complete. So, when the Final Four eventually rolled around that March, the revenge-minded Bruins were worked into a lather, eager to get another shot at Houston on something close to UCLA's home venue (the downtown Sports Arena, only 12 miles from the Westwood campus, had been the Bruins' home court until Pauley Pavilion opened in 1965), as well as Alcindor being healthy for the rematch after being limited by eye problems in the first meeting when Hayes stole the headlines (and made the cover of Sports Illustrated, shooting over Alcindor) while scoring 39 points in the 71-69 Cougar win.

(Alcindor, by the way, would keep that "Big E over Big Lew" cover of SI posted in his locker for the remainder of the season in hopes of getting a chance at revenge.)

So excited was Wooden's team about the prospects for a rematch with Houston that it almost got caught looking ahead in the previous week's West Regional at Albuquerque in the recently-built New Mexico Pit. Las Cruces-based New Mexico State, about three hours south by car or bus, coached by Lou Henson and featuring G Jimmy Collins, used slowdown tactics to put a scare into the Bruins before a late UCLA surge finally put the game away, 58-49, in a Sweet 16 matchup. Properly focused the next night (remember, those were days when the regionals and Final Four were played back-to-back on Friday & Saturday), Alcindor and the Bruins had little trouble vs. Dick Garibaldi's Santa Clara, easing to a 87-66 win and a revenge date with Houston.

As for the still-unbeaten and then top-ranked Cougars, they made quick work of the Midwest regional field in Wichita. Missouri Valley champion Louisville was expected to offer resistance in the Sweet 16, but was instead trampled by a 91-75 count. The Cardinals had entered with a 12-game win streak and seemed to have the proper elixir for Hayes in brutish frontliner Wes Unseld (ironically to be future teammates on an NBA title-winning Bullets team in 1978). Fans who came from the bourbon and horse country, accustomed to photo finishes, were instead treated to something more resembling the great Damascus running away from the field in the previous year's Preakness, Belmont, and Woodward Stakes. The Cards were held scoreless for more than six minutes of the first half as the Cougars dominated the backboards---and the game.

"I've never seen a team hit the offensive boards the way they do," said Louisville Coach John Dromo, "And I never want to see another one unless it's my own."

The Cougars utilized a sticky 1-3-1 zone, with Hayes underneath to block shots and pull down practically every defensive rebound, while 6'5 G Don Chaney was deployed at the top of the key, using his sideline-to-sideline wingspread to force more than a dozen Louisville turnovers. The zone kept the middle too clogged for Unseld to operate efficiently, although some wondered that such tactics might not work in a rematch vs. UCLA, as because of his height, Alcindor had another dimension available to him. As for Chaney, it was doubtful that he would cause UCLA Gs Mike Warren and Lucius Allen as much grief as he caused Louisville's guards.

Hayes, though, could not be discounted, as he had another marvelous night against Louisville, scoring 35 points and taking 24 rebounds (two more than Unseld). The next night, the Cougs blew out TCU in the Midwest Regional title game, and the Final Four rematch was set for Los Angeles.

Dynamics were a bit different from the Astrodome game two months prior; now, Houston was a celebrity team, and with the Final Four on the doorstep to Hollywood, the Cougars took advantage of their new-found fame. Dressed in matching black-and-white-checked double-breasted blazers, the Cougars arrived at LAX and immediately registered in the glamorous Beverly Hilton Hotel. Elvin Hayes and teammate Theodis Lee appeared on ABC's late-night Joey Bishop Show. Center Ken Spain (who would play on the '68 Olympic team at Mexico City) was interviewed for the Dating Game. Hayes and his wife dined at a fine Beverly Hills eatery. A Universal Studios tour was arranged for Hayes, Don Chaney and their wives. They also visited the Hello Dolly! movie set.

All would eventually turn out to be the highlight of their trip to Los Angeles. The basketball sure wasn't anything to remember for the Cougs.

The Friday-night semifinal was such a big deal in Los Angeles that several special closed-circuit TV locations, in theatres much as they would be for major boxing matches of the era, were telecasting UCLA-Houston, since the game was blacked out on L.A. home TV. Scalpers were finding a seller's market at the Sports Arena on game night, fetching as much as $50 per ticket for the most in-demand game nobody seems to remember. Included among the closed-circuit venues was the Bruins' own Pauley Pavilion, which set up a movie screen at one end of the arena and drew almost 9000 fans who would leave disappointed as the transmission failed, those fans forced instead to listen to the action on KMPC radio as described by the long-time voice of the Bruins, Fred Hessler, or perhaps wait for a tape-delay of the game on local KTLA Channel 5 at 11 PM. A record Sports Arena basketball crowd of 15,742, plus those thousands more watching closed-circuit TV in six locations, awaited the tipoff.

The dynamics were completely different than they were for the Astrodome game, although the Sports Arena floor was the same, as it had been transported almost 1400 miles to the Houston for the January classic. The dominant Alcindor, in particular, was not hindered by eye or any other problems for the rematch. As for UH, it was now without G George Reynolds, the Cougars' best ball-handler, who had been ruled ineligible since the first meeting. Coach Guy Lewis' son Vern, usually one of the first Cougs off the bench while Reynolds was available, would be in charge of the ball-handling duties at the Final Four.

It might not have mattered if Jerry West had suited up in a Houston uniform at the Sports Arena. UCLA won the tip and was never behind, spurting to an early 12-4 lead before Houston rallied to within one point, 20-19, and for a few moments all were ready to settle back to watch what might be a nail-biting replay of the Astrodome classic. But Wooden's Bruins chose that moment to push the accelerator to the floor, and in the next 4:17, UCLA outscored Houston 17-5. And when F Lynn Shackelford stole the ball and passed to a streaking G Lucius Allen for an easy layup to make the score 37-24, the Cougars called time-out as Chaney slammed the ball down in frustration.

Intermittent consultations with Coach Lewis did not help, as UCLA kept tormenting Houston with its full-court press and scoring easily on fast breaks and accurate outside shooting. The lead was up to 22 by the half, 53-31, and grew to 28, to 39, and finally reached its peak at 44 (95-51). If they had not used many substitutes in the last five or six minutes, the Bruins would have won by 50 or 60 points. When it was over the scoreboard read 101-69 in UCLA's favor. "That's the greatest exhibition of basketball I've ever seen," said Lewis.

Many who had questioned Houston's soft schedule, and what Hayes might do when under real duress, felt somewhat vindicated as the Cougars melted away in front of the angry Bruin onslaught. Credit also was reserved for Wooden, and in particular assistant coach Jerry Norman, for deploying tactics that featured a "diamond-and-one" zone that put Warren at the top of the key, Allen and Mike Lynn on the wings, and Big Lew underneath the basket, leaving Shackelford free to shadow Hayes, who would score only 10 points.

The defense, which Wooden had never used before, shadowed Hayes while leaving some space elsewhere, but the Cougs shot a miserable 28.2% from the floor. Theodis Lee, hampered by fouls early, made only two of 15 shots. UCLA, on the other hand, hit 52% of its shots, and in one of the great examples of scoring balance, all starters tallied between 14 and 19 points. Alcindor, Lynn and Allen each had 19 points, and Lucius, especially, was dazzling. He earned 12 assists, had nine rebounds and seemed to dribble in and out of Houston's one-three-one zone whenever he felt like it. Without his previous eye problems, Alcindor was also his old intimidating self, and he made half his 14 shots from the floor, five of six free throws and took 18 rebounds while closing the paint.

In addition to clamping down on Hayes with the diamond-and-one, UCLA tinkered with its full-court zone press. At the Astrodome, the Cougars were beating it with quick downcourt passes. This time UCLA effectively cut off those downcourt passes, and the Houston guards often tried to dribble out of trouble, which was just what the Bruins wanted.

For whatever reason, the Cougars seemed to be flat, uninspired and too loose. Perhaps they were just overconfident. "In Houston we were worried about playing UCLA," said one player, "But this time it seemed just like another game."

"We just weren't up for it," said Theodis Lee. "I figured before the game that the best we could shoot would be 35%. Our mental attitude wasn't right."

The Bruins, on the other hand, were quietly oh-so-confident. "We haven't really said anything publicly, but we're a vindictive team," said Warren, who would go on to a TV acting career, after the game. "We've been looking forward to this game a long time. And we're not looking past North Carolina. We'll run them back down South, too."

Indeed, in the finale the following night, the Bruins romped past the Tar Heels, who had beaten Ohio State in the first Friday semifinal, by a 78-55 count. As for Houston? Remember, those were also the days of the consolation games. And, for good measure after losing to the Bruins, the Cougars lost to Fred Taylor's Buckeyes, too, 89-95, in the battle for third place. Indeed, Houston had more fun that week in L.A. before the games began.

* * * *

The public's appetite for a big college basketball event had been whetted by UCLA and Houston and the Astrodome in 1968, but the chance for something similar had to wait almost six years, when a the next formidable challenge to UCLA would arise. The Bruins had continued winning national titles through the Alcindor years, to the subsequent Sidney Wicks-Curtis Rowe teams of 1969-70 and 1970-71, and the "Bill Walton Gang" in 1971-72 and 1972-73. In all, UCLA was on a seven-season national title streak heading into the 1973-74 campaign, and it had already smashed the all-time NCAA win record of 60 straight, held by USF (mostly during Bill Russell's years in the middle of the decade), with the Bruins taking a 75-game win streak into the season.

The challenge to UCLA would come from Norm Sloan's North Carolina State, featuring the skywalking David Thompson. The Wolfpack had completed a 27-0 regular season in 1972-73, but were banned from the postseason due to NCAA probation. Which would be lifted for the subsequent campaign, providing an opportunity for a UCLA-vs.-Houston-like showdown in the regular season.

ABC agreed to take the TV plunge, offering UCLA enough inducements to go halfway across the country even during exam week for the Saturday, December 15 showdown. The location of the game, however, was a bone of contention. Neither school would be caught dead on the other's home court, of course, so Willis Casey, the athletic director at NC State, brazenly suggested Greensboro, site of the upcoming Final Four. "The better for UCLA to practice for the Final Four," said Casey. J. D. Morgan, the stern and autocratic UCLA AD, was not impressed. The Astrodome was again mentioned, but it was still football season in December for the hometown Oilers. Madison Square Garden was also vetoed as a possible site by Morgan.

Finally, the St. Louis Arena, home of the NHL Blues, was selected as a logical neutral zone because of its location, a 19,300 seating capacity, and the fine job St. Louis U. performed in hosting the NCAA finals the previous March...an event the Wolfpack were banned from participating as UCLA romped to another title, with the incomparable Walton scoring 44 points in the title-game romp past Gene Bartow's Memphis State Tigers.

Both schools were guaranteed $125,000, and tickets were scaled at $10 top--surpassing the UCLA-Houston game as the most profitable college game ever. For its investment, ABC came away with a steal. At first hesitant about gambling on college basketball, the network's Roone Arledge soon realized he had made a coup, which ABC needed at the time after losing the NBA package to CBS that season. The network's top announcer, and former lead play-by-play man for the NBA games, Keith Jackson, would call the game.

UCLA's win streak had ballooned to 79 games, barely surviving an upset bid by Lefty Driesell's Maryland, a 65-64 loser at Pauley Pavilion, two weeks earlier. As for NC State, it was carrying a win streak of 29 into the Arena.

For much of the game, another classic seemed to be in the offing, with neither side able to extend the margin. Walton, however, was plagued by foul problems, and when Wooden was slow to remove the big redhead from the game after picking up his second foul, Walton picked up another two quick fouls to saddle himself with four midway through the first half. The 79-game win streak seemed to be wobbling as Walton went to the bench, not to return until deep in the second half.

Enter Ralph Drollinger, a 7-2 sophomore lefty, for the first extended action of his Bruin career. Wooden had previously been able to count upon a solid backup center to Walton, Sven Nater, the two previous seasons, but Drollinger was now going to be forced to deliver until "Big Red" could return to the floor deep into the second half.

UCLA led by two points when Walton went to the bench, but Drollinger proved a serviceable sub, contributing eight points and making matters difficult for the Wolfpack's 7'4 Tom Burleson. NC State forged a one-point lead at the half, but it was missing an opportunity to put distance between itself and the Bruins with Walton on the bench. The high-flying Thompson was also being kept relatively contained by Bruin F Keith Wilkes, as David missed 10 of 13 shots in the first half. Wilkes, meanwhile, would score 15 points of his own while Walton was on the bench, though NC State had gallantly made up an eight-point deficit to tie the score at 54 before Walton returned returned to action with 9½ minutes to play.

UCLA, re-energized by the presence of the big redhead, then unleashed a devastating blitz, fueled by Walton, who was altering the NC State shots on the defensive end and gobbling every rebound in sight. Soon a 10-0 Bruin blitz would prove the KO blow, extending the lead to 73-56. Final score 84-66 in UCLA's favor. Win streak at 80. Challenge dismissed.

Or so many thought.

Unlike UCLA-Houston six years earlier, when anticipation for a rematch grew exponentially after the Astrodome game, there was not much clamor at the outset for a Bruins-Wolfpack return match, due to the one-sided December scoreline in St. Louis. Still, a rematch in the Final Four seemed likely, as the West and East regions were set to meet in the semifinals. Only this time, NC State would be in friendly ACC territory at Greensboro, the first NCAA Final Four to be held in the Deep South (which did not quite count border town Louisville, host city to several Final Fours in the '50s and '60s). Along the way, however, a funny thing happened, as UCLA lost some games. Three of them, in fact, including a memorable setback against Digger Phelps' Notre Dame, after the win streak mushroomed to 88 in a row. The Bruins had to pass a winner-take-all test for the Pac-8 title against USC at the end of the regualr season, a game UCLA, up 47-13 at half, won in an 82-52 romp. Wooden's guys then faced a severe challenge in the Sweet 16 before surviving a triple-OT scare vs. Johnny Davis-led Dayton in Tucson before cruising past USF to return to the Final Four.

As for NC State, it had kept winning since the December loss and assumed the top spot in the polls after the Bruins (and, briefly, Notre Dame) had relinquished the number one ranking. The Wolfpack had romped past Providence and Pitt in the East Regional, conveniently contested at NC State's Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh. Although there had been a real scare in the first half of the regional final vs. Pitt when the high-flyer Thompson, incensed after no foul was called on the physical Panthers at the other end of the court, raced back on defense to attempt at blocking a shot by Pitt's Keith Starr. Instead, however, Thompson, flying at his highest into the key, was clipped in mid-air by teammate Phil Spence's shoulder. Airborne, Thompson cartwheeled, crashing on his head. For a few moments fans feared the worst as Thompson lay motionless and bloodied on the floor, but soon he was revived and led to the locker room and then to a local hospital. Concussed and with a nasty gash requiring 16 stitches, Thompson was allowed to return to Reynolds in the second half and walk on to the floor with his head bandaged like a Revolutionary War soldier, and the Raleigh audience roared its approval at the sight of a still-alive, ambulatory Thompson. David stayed on the bench, not about to make a Willis Reed-like appearance back into the game, especially since the Pack was well ahead thanks to a big game from Burleson, who would finish with 35 points. Word was that if Thompson checked out fine during the week, he would be ready for the Bruins the following Saturday.

Still, even with Thompson available and playing at the NC State-friendly Greensboro venue, most assumed UCLA would prevail, as it had done in 38 straight NCAA Tourney games. Especially since the Bruins had romped in that first meeting. "A real whippin'," the Bruins' Tommy Curtis called that one, and Wooden kept adding psychological fuel. "I want State to dwell on that 18-point margin," the Wizard said to the cameras before the rematch.

Unlike Houston six years earlier, NC State and Sloan had kept quiet leading up to the Final Four rematch. Though Wolfpack forward Tim Stoddard (a future Major League pitcher) was undeterred by Wooden's comments. "We know they aren't 18 points better than us," Stoddard said, "But what's more important is that they know it."

Anticipation was suddenly high for the rematch, especially along Tobacco Road, where over 6000 State fans had watched practices in Raleigh. Eighty miles away in Greensboro, the atmosphere was similarly charged. Not that UCLA seemed to care, or consider the chance it might lose. "I won't believe it (losing)," said Bruin G Andre McCarter. "It just doesn't fit into history."

But the aura of invincibility had left the Bruins during the regular-season defeats at Notre Dame and the lost weekend against Oregon State and Oregon. This UCLA team was prone to letting foes off of the hook, as it had done when letting the Fighting Irish first rally from 17 points down, then score the last 12 points of the game, to win in January's streak-breaking game.

The teams probed as usual at the start of the rematch at the Final Four, but Sloan's strategy was evident early, as the Pack was forcing the Bruins to start their offense farther out than they liked, and State stopped the backdoor plays as Thompson held his former nemesis, Wilkes, to five baskets in 17 attempts while scoring 28 points himself. Wolfpack mini-guard Monte Towe buzzed around the UCLA guards until they finally got tired of swatting and started tripping over him, and Burleson prevented Walton from dominating. Though the redhead had the edge in points and rebounds, 29-20 and 18-14, tall Tom actually prevailed on more big plays. Burleson made a superb one early in the second half. At that stage UCLA had rushed to a 49-38 lead and it seemed like school was out for the Pack when it missed again as Walton controlled a defensive rebound, held it high overhead, and looked upcourt.

Then, from behind, the giraffe-like Burleson darted in to pluck the ball out of Walton's hands and quickly lay it in the basket. As Walton ran back on offense he snarled at Burleson, swearing vengeance. And indeed, UCLA went to another big margin, 57-46, with 11 minutes to go. But State was not through this time, either. Towe cracked the whip, tearing down the lane or firing football-type passes from midcourt, and the Pack surged back, much like Notre Dame in January against UCLA at South Bend. This time it was a 10-point run to narrow the gap to 57-56, then to 61-60, and, astonishingly, into the lead at 63-61 when Thompson vanished into the rafters again with still another sky-lob basket and a three-point play!

With 51 seconds remaining and the score tied at 65, Walton missed a hook shot, Burleson rebounded, and the Pack held the ball for a last shot, which Stoddard, of all people, took while open in the corner. It missed. Much the same in the overtime, UCLA squandering a chance to forge a lead in the last minute when Stoddard stole a pass from Greg Lee. Again, the Wolfpack ran down the clock (remember, these were days long before the 35-second college shot clock) for a last attempt. Thompson drove for the payoff with 10 seconds to go. Instead of shooting himself, however, he passed off to Burleson, whose short spinner bounced off the rim. A second overtime beckoned.

Surely, UCLA would now take control, and after buckets by Walton and Wilkes moved the Bruins to a 74-67 lead with 3:27 remaining, the Wooden win streak seemed destined to continue. But, magically, State summoned one more surge. The Pack pressed tighter, opened up the floor, caused turnovers, and got every offensive rebound it needed. Just like that, UCLA's lead was down to one at 75-74. And after Dave Meyers missed a critical one-and-one with 1:16 on the clock, Thompson leaped one last time, banked a jumper over Wilkes, and the Wolfpack was ahead 76-75. Ahead to stay. Towe's pair of free throws with 12 seconds to play would ice the game, which ended 80-77 in NC State's favor. The Pack had spurted to a 13-1 run in the final three minutes before allowing Bruin G Greg Lee to score at the buzzer.

It was demeaning to both teams to say, as UCLA's Meyers did, "We beat ourselves" or as Towe did, "Nothing can compare to beating Maryland in the ACC finals." (A story we have also recounted on these pages in the past.) State would go on to beat Al McGuire's Marquette, which had topped Kansas in a much more tame first national semifinal, on Monday night for the title.

So, as you can see, Florida and UConn will not be the first teams to play a rematch in the national semifinals. We can only hope we're still talking about the Gators and Huskies, 40 years or more hence, as we still are about UCLA and NC State from '74, or the Bruins and Houston from 1968!

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