Relaxed, confident, unbeaten in 31 games, dressed in matching black-and-white-checked double-breasted blazers, the University of Houston's uninhibited assortment of basketball players arrived at Los Angeles International Airport last week and proceeded to the glamorous Beverly Hilton Hotel, where a fan of theirs had set them up with free rooms. Elvin Hayes and Theodis Lee appeared on The Joey Bishop Show. Handsome Center Ken Spain was twice interviewed for The Dating Game. Hayes and his wife Erna dined at The Luau in Beverly Hills. And a former Houston cheerleader named Rudy Durand got Coach Guy Lewis into this season's swingingest private Hollywood night spot, The Factory. Durand also provided a Cadillac limousine and a movie-studio tour for Hayes, Don Chaney and their wives. They visited the Hello Dolly! set, which is bigger than Elvin's home town of Rayville, La.
There was something else on the Houston schedule: a game with UCLA (see cover) in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament Friday night, and the Cougars were beaten by 32 points. They were beaten, in fact, by one of the finest exhibitions of skill, speed and shooting in the history of college basketball. It was not the highlight of their trip.
Evidence turned up early that it would not be Houston's night. Howie Lorch, the Cougars' student manager, was arrested outside the Sports Arena just before the game and booked on charges of scalping tickets. As one Houston player said later, some of his teammates "seemed more worried about selling their tickets than about the game." Scalpers luckier than Lorch were getting as much as $50 a ticket, and a few greedy ones were insisting customers purchase seats for both nights.
To many the prices were not unreasonable. Last January in the Astrodome, UCLA was upset by Houston 71-69, losing its No. 1 ranking and a chance for a second straight undefeated season. The subsequent SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover showed Hayes shooting a jump shot over the upstretched arm of Lew Alcindor. Lew, who had been completely outplayed by Elvin, put the cover up in his locker, where he had to look at it every day before and after practice. Both teams had gone unbeaten since that night under the Dome, both had made it without much strain into the NCAA's final round of four, and now they were to meet in UCLA's backyard. It did not much matter which Eastern team, North Carolina or Ohio State, got into the final game, this one was for the national championship.
While a record Sports Arena basketball crowd of 15,742, plus thousands more watching closed-circuit TV in six locations, awaited the tipoff, the giant screen set up at the west end of Pauley Pavilion, UCLA's campus arena across town, showed only blobs and shadows in a snowstorm. Half the crowd of 8,500, which included the athletic director's mother-in-law, went home in disgust.
UCLA won the tip and was never behind, but the game was not a romp—at first. The Bruins spurted to a 12-4 lead, Houston rallied to within one point, 20-19, and everyone settled back to watch the two best teams in the country battle into maybe five or six overtimes. Perhaps Howie Lorch could get bailed out in time to see the finish. The Bruins chose that moment to tramp on the gas pedal, and in the next four minutes 17 seconds UCLA outscored Houston 17-5 and generally behaved as if it were playing against five blindfolded Campfire Girls. When Lynn Shackelford stole the ball and passed to Lucius Allen for an easy layup to make the score 37-24, the Cougars called time-out and Don Chaney slammed the ball down in frustration.
Intermittent consultations with Coach Lewis did not help, not even at half time when he talked about "pride, not quitting, hanging tough, those good ol' American principles we'll need if we ever fight the Russians or the Chinese or some of those folks." 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 and grew to 28, to 39 and reached its peak at 44. If they had not used many substitutes in the last five or six minutes, the Bruins would have won by 50 or 60 points.
"That's the greatest exhibition of basketball I've ever seen," said Lewis.
The pro- UCLA crowd loved it and screamed for more. If Lewis and his players had been fallen gladiators, it would have been thumbs down from all the Neros. Amid the noise and fury, Houston's pet cougar, Shasta, who might have been expected to pace up and down in his cage the way a ferocious mascot should, slept through the second half. The final score was 101-69.
There were many reasons for the rout, but the main one was that Hayes reacted to this all-important game roughly the way Shasta did. Nothing apparently had occurred this season to discourage Hayes, but when something did, he discouraged very easily. What happened was that John Wooden and his assistant, Jerry Norman, came up with a diamond-shaped zone defense that put Mike Warren at the top of the key, Allen and Mike Lynn on the wings and Lew underneath the basket (ducking to avoid scraping his head on the rim). That left Lynn Shackelford free to shadow Elvin. Shack did a good job; there were times when he and Hayes looked like two guys doing a soft-shoe routine. Perhaps Hayes enjoyed the attention. Much of the time, anyway, he hardly tried to avoid it.