It is probably demeaning to both teams to say, as UCLA's Dave Meyers did, "We beat ourselves" or as Towe did, "Nothing can compare to beating Maryland in the ACC finals." For, to answer Towe, this game was more important, and to counter Meyers, both teams had many opportunities to win or lose long before the end.
How State finally succeeded was simple enough. The Wolfpack forced the Bruins to start their offense farther out than they like, and State stopped the backdoor plays as Thompson held his former nemesis, Wilkes, to five baskets in 17 attempts while scoring 28 points himself. 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 Big Red had the edge in points and rebounds, 29-20 and 18-14, tall Tom actually prevailed on more big plays.
Burleson made a magnificent one early in the second half. At that stage UCLA had rushed to a 49-38 lead and it seemed like school was out when State missed again as Walton controlled a defensive rebound, held it high overhead, and looked upcourt.
Then, from behind his rival, the 7'4" 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. As Towe cracked the whip, tearing down the lane or firing football-type passes from midcourt, the Pack came back. Scoring 10 straight points, it closed to 57-56, then to 61-60, and, astonishingly, went 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 and Burleson rebounded. But, after a State delay offense, the burly Stoddard missed an open corner shot with five seconds left that would have won the game in regulation. Again, in the first overtime, it was State's game to win after Stoddard stole a pass from Greg Lee, enabling the Wolfpack to hold the ball once more, and Thompson drove for the payoff with 10 seconds to go. Instead of shooting himself, however, he passed off to Burleson, whose short spin toss bounced off the rim.
Wouldn't anybody win this thing? Certainly UCLA seemed on its way in the second overtime, after Walton and Wilkes took the Bruins to a 74-67 lead with 3:27 remaining. But still State would not quit. 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. And after 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.
Moments later Lee missed a long one-hander and, underneath, Wilkes was called for pushing Thompson. David made both free throws, widening the lead to 78-75. Still later, with 27 seconds to go, Burleson stole Lee's pass to Walton. Curtis fouled Towe, and the little man made both shots for 80-75.
Now it was over for sure. As Walton loped down the floor, after—fittingly enough—scoring UCLA's last basket, he nodded to his comrade, Lee, as if to say, "It's O.K." And it was. For afterward, even as he sat nude in the dressing room refusing to talk to the press, grinning like a Cheshire cat and gnawing on a banana, in defeat Bill Walton knew who he was.
After dressing he shoved his uniform into a bag and left to sign autographs for some children. He stopped at the Coliseum exit when a man in overalls grabbed his arm. "Mr. Walton," the man said, "I work here, and I just want to shake your hand."
"Thanks," the player said. "And thanks for all you've done for us."