The Bruins dropped
a hint of what was in store just before Christmas, when they took out unbeaten
Creighton and muscular Paul Silas. But it would be six days later, against No.
3 Michigan in the L.A. Classic, when UCLA conclusively demonstrated how speed
could trump size. The Wolverines called their frontline of Bill Buntin, Oliver
Darden and Larry Tregoning the Anvil Chorus, and guard Cazzie Russell was an
All-America and future collegiate player of the year. Hirsch nonetheless locked
up Russell, Slaughter shut down the 6'7", 250-pound Buntin, and the Bruins
won 98--80, improving their record to 8--0. Harry Combes, coach of the Illinois
team the Bruins would beat the next night for the tournament title, called it
"the best performance in a single game I've ever seen by a college
team." Nonetheless, it wasn't until January, after Georgia Tech beat
Kentucky and the Bruins rang up 121 points against Washington State, that UCLA
ascended to No. 1 in the polls. A team unmentioned in SI's preseason Top 20
suddenly found itself lording over the sport.
In each of their
30 games, the Bruins used the zone press to deliver at least one game-altering
spurt, a period of two or three minutes in which UCLA outscored its opponent by
10 or more points. These Bruin Blitzes, as they came to be known, usually took
place before the end of the first half. In a few instances--such as a 100--88
win over Stanford, in which Erickson's three steals spurred an 18--3 run that
put UCLA up 77--65--opponents didn't get blown away until the second half. But
those decisive runs always came.
flowed from its coach. "A couple of times when we were way down, I remember
looking over at him with his legs crossed and program rolled up," Slaughter
recalls, "and I'd think, Hey, if he's not worried, I'm not worried."
Sometime in February, Slaughter remembers, he picked up an out-of-town paper
and read speculation that the Bruins might go undefeated. It hadn't occurred to
him. "We were too busy having fun," Slaughter says, "and beating
the crap out of everyone."
If a lightness
persisted among the players, it's because their success seemed so unexpected
and sudden. The fans embraced the lark of it, wearing their red we try harder
buttons from Avis's popular ad campaign. Just the same, this wasn't a case of a
team that would only appreciate what it accomplished with the passage of time.
"As it was unfolding," says reserve forward Rich Levin, one of five
end-of-the-benchers who called themselves the Mop-Up Squad, "we knew it was
In their first
game of the NCAA tournament, in the West Regional in Corvallis, Ore., the
Bruins trailed Seattle late before Goodrich bailed them out, finding Washington
for a layup and free throw, then scoring on a layup himself off a steal in a
95--90 victory. The next night UCLA fell behind San Francisco early, trailing
by 13 in the first half. The blitz came like the cavalry, "right at the end
of the game," Erickson remembers, delivering the Bruins to the Final Four
in Kansas City, Mo.
There they drew a
virtual home team, Kansas State. "They're up five with seven minutes to
play," Hirsch recalls, "and their best player takes a 15-footer. The
ball is in the net, and somehow comes out. I grab the ball, throw it down to
Gail for a layup, and we're down three. If that ball goes in, with no shot
clock.... " He lets you imagine the consequences. "It's as if God said,
'This team is going undefeated.'"
UCLA drew even at
75 with four minutes left, and then another K-State shot went in and out. This
time the Blitz had been modest, 11 points in three minutes, but it was enough
to make UCLA a 90--84 winner and set up a title-game matchup with Duke. Like
Hirsch, Wooden knew that as superbly as his team had performed all season, fate
seemed to be playing an ever larger role. "Somehow we keep our poise and
get out of the jams we get ourselves into," Wooden said on the eve of the
final. "Now we have to do it one more time."
"There is no way for UCLA to beat Duke," wrote Dick Wade of The Kansas
City Star. "The Blue Devils simply have too much--height, shooting ability,
rebounding ability and defense." At least Wade had been smart enough to
preface his prediction with this: "If you're silly enough to apply logic to
Logic fled the
arena late in the first half, shortly after Erickson had picked up his third
foul with UCLA trailing 30--27. Here came the blitz by which all others would
be measured. Hirsch made three steals. Goodrich scored eight points.
Washington, playing before his dad for the first time, knocked down two
jumpers. And Erickson, disregarding the fouls, blocked several shots. Twice
Duke called timeout, but to no avail. By the time the Bruins' run had
ended--after one Blue Devil turned to Slaughter and said, "Hey, can you
guys slow down?"-- UCLA had scored 16 unanswered points in slightly more
than 2 1/2 minutes to take a 43--30 lead. Off the bench, McIntosh and
Washington would combine for 23 rebounds; Duke's two 6'10" frontliners,
Hack Tison and Jay Buckley, would get only 10 between them. UCLA forced 29
turnovers and coasted, 98--83, to finish 30--0. "Don't let it change
you," Wooden told his players in the locker room. "You are champions
and must act like champions."
Five times during
that season the Bruins scored more than 100 points; only six times did they win
by five or fewer. Over the ensuing months Wooden would field some 700 inquiries
from coaches asking how the press worked. He has always called that first title
team the one that came "as close to reaching its potential as a team could
come," and given his definition of success, that is the highest praise he