Thursday, January 20, 2011

January 20, 1968: Basketball's Game of the Century

HOUSTON - The Houston Cougars wanted to prove to the country that their recent basketball success was no fluke. Sure, they had made it to the Final Four the previous season, losing to UCLA, but people still didn't fully believe. So they made a goal of putting together a tougher schedule to prove to their critics that they were as good as advertized.

In the late 1960s, putting together a tougher schedule meant you had to include UCLA, so the Cougars invited the defending champions to Houston for a regular-season game. Though they needed some convincing, the Bruins agreed, and a game was scheduled for January 20, 1968.

Hoping to get as much exposure for the basketball team as possible, the Cougars started advertising the game early, putting previews for it in their football programs that fall. As the game started getting attention, Houston decided to move the game off-campus and hold it in the brand new Astrodome, the first basketball game to be played in that arena. Meanwhile, the teams did their best to increase the hype, and both were undefeated entering their matchup in Houston.

With the matchup of two unbeaten teams, the top two teams in the rankings, and with the novelty of the game being held in the Astrodome, another novelty was added for the game. The TVS Television Network picked up the game with the intention of broadcasting it nationally. Up to that point, the only NCAA games to be televised nationwide were NCAA tournament games, so it was seen as a big financial risk to televise a regular-season game. TVS took the risk with the belief that basketball could hold up as a televised sport.

The risk paid off. More than 120 stations picked up the game across the country, leading to a vast television audience on top of the 52,000 fans that crammed into the Astrodome - which was, at the time, the largest crowd to ever see a basketball game. For their efforts, each school received a payday of $120,000, which was four times the amount each school had earned for participating in the previous year's NCAA tournament.

It helped that it was a classic game. Led by Elvin Hayes, the No. 2 Cougars stayed right with No. 1 UCLA. It helped the Cougars that UCLA center Lew Alcindor was playing with a scratched cornea, suffered the previous game. Alcindor ended up playing one of the worst games of his collegiate career that night, while Hayes starred.

After Houston went into halftime with a 46-43 lead, the scoring slowed down in the second half. UCLA's Lucius Allen made two free throws to tie the game at 69 late in the second half, but two free throws by Hayes put Houston back on top. Allen couldn't get his last jumper to fall, and Houston had a 71-69 victory, ending UCLA's 47-game winning streak.

Neither team lost again until they met again in the Final Four. UCLA gained revenge with a 101-69 victory on their way to their second straight title and fourth in five years. But the success of this game had ramifications far beyond that basketball season. With UCLA and Houston proving that fans would tune in to watch even a regular-season college game, the networks started paying more and more for the rights to televise NCAA games. A sport that had struggled to gain a following exploded in popularity almost instantly. The popularity of the modern-day March Madness can easily be traced to one game in Houston between a pair of unbeaten teams.

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