They come at UCLA this time from the dusty pits of the Palestra and with the hot-dog spirits of "Philly ball" in their veins; from the edge of the Kansas plains where the eerie chant "Rock...Chalk...Jay...Hawk...Kkkkk...Uuuu" stirs the body and soothes the soul; and especially from out of nowhere, the backwoods Bluegrass country hard by a red, white and blue water tower in Bowling Green, Ky.
They come like this: Villanova, with those wonderfully obscene roll-out banners and that marvelous ski-nosed coach jabbering his double-talk for all the world like Casey Stengel. Kansas, big, bold and brutish—a Wall Street of a team; bears and bulls—carrying as its standard a remarkable tendency for victory in the close ones and sustained, undoubtedly, by its silent prayers in the locker room before every game. And Western Kentucky, red towels waving and BIG MAC signs churning in appreciation of Jim McDaniels and his crew of black henchmen whose time has been long in arriving but who now look like a team with perhaps the best chance of any in recent years to topple the odds and steal the laurels from Los Angeles.
Having survived brave and vigorous regional competition in Raleigh, N.C., Athens, Ga., and Wichita, Kans., these three will join defending champion UCLA this weekend in the Houston Astrodome for college basketball's final curtain of the 1970-71 season: the semifinal and final rounds of the NCAA championship.
The three interlopers have landed in Texas with one common denominator, the Unforeseen. And they must surely give UCLA pause for thought similar to those considerations of Sir Roderick in Scott's The Lady of the Lake:
Respect was mingled with surprise,
And the stern joy which warriors feel
In foemen worthy of their steel.
UCLA, of course, comes to the Astrodome by no surprise. The Bruins are always there at the end, which is where they belong under the now-legendary tutelage of Coach John Wooden. They proved worthy of their steel long before the West Regional in Salt Lake City by going undefeated in the Pacific Eight Conference which—let it finally be said and done with—is the strongest college league in the land, and by twice beating highly acclaimed USC. Getting to Utah, then, was most of the battle, and once there, so the feeling went, the Bruins would be on a picnic.
Brigham Young and Long Beach State had other designs. The Cougars, UCLA's opponent Thursday night, were in friendly WAC country and they had their Yugoslavian Secret Weapon, 6'11" Kresimir Cosic—he of the 30-foot sets and behind-the-back dribbles—going for them. But though Cosic finished with 18 points and 23 rebounds and produced some bristling drives down the middle that belied one writer's nickname for him—The Pumas' Pleasant Pivoteer—Brigham Young drove back to Provo a 91-73 loser. UCLA was never really threatened.
In the other half of the draw, Long Beach fell behind Pacific by 13 points at halftime, a surprising development only because the Tigers looked slow enough to lose a kindergarten beanbag relay and Long Beach elected to stand around with them and fight dullness with apathy. After intermission, the 49ers' 1-3-1 trap zone opened the game up and Long Beach outscored Pacific by 26 to win 78-65.
It was left to Saturday afternoon for Jerry Tarkanian's team to show its true colors. Defense is Long Beach's game, and it gave UCLA all the defense it wanted as the Bruins barely escaped from a shocking 29% shooting afternoon to win 57-55. UCLA managed only eight field goals in the first half and, with 17 minutes left in the game, Henry Bibby threw up his second air ball, Sidney Wicks committed his fourth foul and shortly left. The defending champions, soon 11 points behind, looked dead and, Wooden said later, "I thought about leaving early for Houston with my wife and enjoying the coaches' convention."
Amid his moments of doubt, however, he replaced Guard Terry Schofield with 6'6½" John Ecker. Now, with four big men and Bibby in the lineup, UCLA scored nine straight points to get back in the contest. Wicks then reentered the game and helped put his club into a tie at 53 with 5:04 left. Finally, with 25 seconds to go, Wicks was fouled. He made both free throws and, on a rebound 13 seconds later, he was fouled once more. Irrepressible Sidney, now smiling with confidence, made both of those free throws, too, and UCLA had a 57-53 lead and another trip to the finals.