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Monday night in the San Diego Sports Arena college basketball went off to meet the Wizard of Westwood for the last time. Having arrived in California 27 years ago as something of a scarecrow, John Wooden went out like a most uncowardly lion. UCLA, which under Wooden has failed to win only two of the last 12 NCAA championships, won this one by holding off Kentucky 92-85.
At the finish Wooden remained true to his image; except for an emotional outburst or two during a very emotional game, he was the kindly Tin Man to the end. "I didn't really feel differently about this game," he said. "Just very proud."
Even the Wizard, having announced his retirement on Saturday, must have sensed the extra impact of the game's two most honored schools meeting in his farewell. Here were UCLA and Kentucky, which had won more than a third of all the NCAA basketball titles ever played, evoking memories of Hagan and Ramsey and Issel, of Goodrich and Alcindor and Walton. And here was Wooden one-on-one with destiny.
"It will be sad if he loses," said retired Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp, "but he's got enough of those darn trophies. Johnny's in against me tonight."
The Bruins also were in against a massive Wildcat squad that had reached the final on muscle, manpower and the deft shooting of freshman Jack Givens. But if the thin list of six Bruins who played in the final, including slender Centers Richard Washington and Ralph Drollinger, felt they couldn't handle the burly Wildcats they didn't show it. Drollinger got 13 rebounds and 10 points in 16 minutes, while Washington, who split his time between the pivot and forward, scored 28, added 12 rebounds and found the time to help hold the Wildcats' three hulking freshman centers to eight points. "I even surprised myself," said Washington, the tournament MVP.
The furious pace of the first half, in which there were 15 lead changes and five ties, continued in the second period until UCLA broke away to a 66-56 lead with 12 minutes left in the game. Kevin Grevey, whose 18 first-half points had sparked Kentucky, was silenced by Bruin Captain David Meyers during UCLA's surge. Then Grevey suddenly came alive again, scoring 10 points, and Wildcat floor leader Jimmy Dan Conner finally escaped the defensive clutches of Pete Trgovich. Kentucky scrambled to only a point back with 6:49 remaining.
At that moment the Wildcats had a chance to take the game by the throat. That they didn't was another example of the uncanny luck that UCLA enjoyed all week. With the Bruins ahead 76-75, Meyers went up for a jumper but fell into Grevey and was called for a foul. Screaming and pounding the floor, the Spider was hit with a technical, whereupon Wooden shouted, "You crook!" at Referee Hank Nichols and rushed onto the court.
Kentucky had a possible five-point play—a maximum of three free throws followed by possession of the ball. But Grevey, who finished with 34 points, missed the technical and then the first of his one-and-ones. Wildcat sub James Lee set an illegal pick on the ensuing play, and Kentucky had come up empty.
After the game UCLA Guard Andre McCarter, who had made 14 assists, and a key late basket, embraced the 64-year-old Wooden and said, "Coach, I hope you have a nice life." The Wizard's eyes sparkled just a little.