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"Obviously, Houston and UCLA are the two best teams in the country," said Tar Heel Coach Dean Smith, while waiting for the other semifinal game to start. "And now, maybe we're third." Which would he rather play? Smith answered by quoting Ohio State Coach Fred Taylor: "Getting hit by a train or a truck, it doesn't make much difference."
Smith figured his team had to control the tempo against UCLA or it would be embalmed and buried by half time. So he planned to use his four-corner offense, with Charlie Scott, Rusty Clark, Bill Bunting and Dick Grubar in the corners and Miller roaming around in the middle. Once North Carolina got through the press, or if it did, it would set up carefully and look for the high-percentage shot. In that way, he reasoned, his team might be within striking distance at the end.
Against his usual practice, Smith let his players watch the first half of the UCLA-Houston game and they were not awed. "Young men are not as realistic as coaches," he said. "I know it will take a miracle, but I have confidence in them."
The miracle did not come about. After Ohio State beat Houston in the preliminary game for third place, UCLA confidently took North Carolina by 23 points, 78-55. UCLA recognized early that only Miller and Scott seemed willing to shoot and concentrated on them.
Alcindor scored 34 points against North Carolina's man-to-man defense. Time after time a teammate would lob a pass to him just under the hoop and he would drop it in. Not nifty long-range marksmanship, but effective nevertheless. He also had 16 rebounds and at least seven blocked shots. He was named player of the tournament, and three other Bruins, Allen, Warren and Shackelford, joined him and Miller on the all-tournament team. The Bruin who was left out, Mike Lynn, hit eight out of 10 shots against Houston, which is a nice gauge of the caliber of this starting five. Immediately after the final buzzer, Lew carried a chair over to one basket and cut down the net, which is basketball's mild version of tearing down a goalpost. He didn't really need the chair to stand on. By the time the watches and the NCAA tie tacks and the big NCAA trophy were presented, Alcindor had the net draped around his neck like a lei and Warren wore the one from the other basket.
"We didn't play the perfect game and you have to play the perfect game to beat them," said Smith. He called Alcindor "the greatest player who ever played the game" and UCLA "the greatest basketball team of all time." In both cases he probably was excluding the pros, but then again, maybe not. The Bruin basketball players tended to agree with him.
"It's difficult to do, very difficult," said Wooden. (Coaches are more realistic than young men.) "Look back through the history of the NCAA. Isn't it difficult?"
It is indeed. No team has ever won three NCAA championships in a row. But Alcindor, Allen and Shackelford will be back, and they will have for company the current star of an undefeated freshman team, Curtis Rowe, plus a couple of talented redshirts and an outstanding junior-college prospect. If Alcindor keeps other people's fingers out of his eyes, there seems to be no major obstacle to the goal.
Despite UCLA's winning its fourth NCAA championship in five years, Houston was awarded most of the season's shiny bric-a-brac. Hayes was chosen player of the year four weeks ago, and Guy Lewis was his colleagues' choice as coach of the year. That was fair enough. He accepted both the sweet Astrodome victory and the overwhelming Sports Arena defeat with admirable grace.