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A CLOSE ONE AT LAST
Joe Jares
April 05, 1971
The Bruins of UCLA won their fifth straight NCAA national title, but for once there was an element of doubt. Howard Porter and Villanova almost set the East on fire before their flame finally was doused
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April 05, 1971

A Close One At Last

The Bruins of UCLA won their fifth straight NCAA national title, but for once there was an element of doubt. Howard Porter and Villanova almost set the East on fire before their flame finally was doused

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When the UCLA basketball team arrived in Houston for the NCAA championships, Coach John Wooden made one of his typically startling forecasts. "I think we have as good a chance as any team here," he said. There was that rascal going out on a limb again.

So, having been forewarned by Wooden—and the fact that UCLA hasn't lost a playoff game since smog was invented—absolutely nobody was astonished when the Bruins beat Kansas 68-60 in the semifinals Thursday night with their usual workmanlike precision, then subdued inspired Villanova 68-62 in the finals on Saturday. The fact that UCLA's lone candidate for superstardom, fashion plate Sidney Wicks, had to play with a sore big toe might have worried some people. Not UCLA. The school tabloid, The Daily Bruin, already had made the necessary allowances in the budget for an eight-page color supplement celebrating the championship.

For the benefit of those whose subscriptions to The Daily Bruin have expired, UCLA now has won five straight NCAA championships ("Gimme five," the UCLA buttons said) and seven of the last eight. The team's record for the past five seasons is 145-5 and it has won 28 straight NCAA tournament games. Opposing schools are going to make up buttons saying, "Givus help!"

If the story of this year's NCAA showdown was familiar, the setting at least was different. The court was a four-foot-high platform squatting out in the middle of the Astrodome's acreage, with an 80-foot-high NBC camera crane poised above it at one end like a creature feature predator ready to pounce. The spectators at ground level needed periscopes; the spectators in the stands needed telescopes. Photographers sitting cross-legged at either end of the floor were threatened with decapitation by people sitting behind and below them as the Astrodome set a new two-day, U.S.-arena record for "down in fronts." But worse was yet to come. The customers not only were unable to see the games, they couldn't see those nubile UCLA pompon girls doing a quick costume change and coming out in homemade hot pants. "Givus help!"

The NCAA knew all along that the Astrodome was far more suitable for feeding Christians to lions than for basketball, but the potential payoff was too much to resist. The two sessions drew 63,193 people, which is a lot of sweetening for a tournament pot. One official estimated that each of the four semifinalists would cart home about $60,000, much more than teams had before.

For the players, there was a problem, too: not the lights, as some expected, but the short distance between the sidelines and the edges of the raised floor—only about 10 feet. A man chasing a loose ball toward the side felt like a Navy pilot overshooting an aircraft carrier. When Western Kentucky Coach Johnny Oldham stepped up on the court for a practice session, he said:

"Here's my first prediction. Clarence Glover goes over the side."

"I'll go after the ball," said Western's Rex Bailey. "I may not want to, but when you're playing for the national championship you don't hold back. Of course, I'll land on somebody's head."

Several players did overshoot the runway in the four games (Glover not among them, despite his usual hustling performance), but miraculously nobody got hurt. Outside the Dome, however, a Western Kentucky student was killed trying to jump from a motel balcony into a swimming pool.

The first semifinal game was between East Regional champion Villanova, playing in its 10th postseason tournament in Jack Kraft's 10 years as coach, and the Mideast's Western Kentucky. To cynics it looked like a preview of next season's ABA playoffs; two newsmen with good eyesight reported seeing ABA contracts signed by Villanova's 6'8" Howard Porter and Western's 7-foot Jim McDaniels. Both players signed affidavits for the NCAA, swearing they were still untainted, but early on Monday the Pittsburgh Condors announced they had signed Porter.

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