Wednesday, January 19, 2011

January 19, 1974: 88

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - It was 70-59, 3:39 left in the game. It didn't look like there would be any miracles today. Notre Dame wouldn't be waking up the echoes against UCLA. Time to lick their wounds, accept their first loss of the season with grace, and get ready for the rematch next week. But what the heck - there was nothing to lose, so Notre Dame pressed, got right up in UCLA's face. If the Bruins were going to win, the Irish might as well make them earn it.

But something funny happened in that final 3:39 in South Bend. The unshakable, unstoppable UCLA team, the team that hadn't lost in 88 games, the team that had won seven straight national championships - that team started to panic.

Facing a full-court press and a frenetic road crowd, the Bruins started committing turnovers, running into each other. When they did get a shot off, it would miss wildly. They looked nothing like college basketball's greatest dynasty. They looked like a team not used to winning.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, kept coming back, kept making the shots that UCLA was missing. the lead was cut to nine, then seven, then five. Then everybody started to see what was happening, started to believe in the impossible.

UCLA hadn't lost a basketball game since January 23, 1971, losing to Notre Dame on this very floor. Their streak of 88 straight wins included four wins over the Irish, by 58, 25, 26, and 19 points. When they broke the NCAA record of 60 consecutive victories, their 61st straight was over Notre Dame. Aside from their conference opponents, nobody had suffered under UCLA's greatness more than Notre Dame. And now, the Fighting Irish were fighting back.

Trailing by five, Notre Dame's Gary Brokaw made two straight jump shots, cutting the Irish deficit to 70-69 with 1:10 left. That was still a lifetime in basketball terms, but UCLA wasn't playing anywhere near to its capabilities. Who knew if they'd be able to stem the tide. Keith Wilkes seemed to have done just that with a layup with 45 seconds left, but he was called for travelling. Notre Dame ball.

The Irish tried to get the ball to center John Shumate for the go-ahead basket, but UCLA smothered him. Open in the corner, though, was Dwight Clay, who had gone only 1-for-4 in the game. However, Clay had won three different games for Notre Dame that year with final-second shots. He was the man to take the huge shot, and there was bedlam when it went in.

Notre Dame led 71-70, having scored the last 12 points of the game. UCLA had 29 seconds left to try to take the lead. A really long time. How much can you do in 29 seconds?

If you're UCLA, you can see a player take a long jump shot and have it hit the back rim and bounce out. You have time to have two of your players try to tip the rebound in but miss, and you have time to see the ball bound out of bounds off a Notre Dame player. You have time to pass the ball in to the great Bill Walton, who had played the entire game after missing the previous three, and who had missed only one shot all game. But even he wasn't immune to the late-game struggles, and his shot came off the rim, too. There was still enough time for two more tip attempts, but by then it seemed like a foregone conclusion. Shumate grabbed the final rebound, the buzzer sounded, and Notre Dame had its biggest win in school history.

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