Thursday, March 31, 2011

March 31, 1975: Wooden walks away

SAN DIEGO - The pressure was on the UCLA Bruins in this one. Before the Final Four began, their legendary coach, John Wooden, had announced during a press conference that he would be retiring after the season. So now the onus was on the Bruins to send their coach into retirement with another championship, giving him an even 10 in a 12-year span.

But first, their opponent was Kentucky, deemed to be far superior to the Bruins in 1975. Kentucky was big and tall, boasting four players who were 6-foot-9 or taller. Kentucky had already been giant-killers in the tournament, knocking out prohibitive favorite Indiana in the Regional Final. That had been the Wildcats' only close game of the tournament as they eased to the final.

UCLA, meanwhile, had struggled to get to the championship game, needing overtime to beat Michigan in the first round, beating Montana by only three in the second round, and needing yet another overtime against Louisville in the national semifinal. The Bruins were also short and not very deep, and they lacked the star power of the previous Bruins title teams.

What UCLA had, though, was speed, and lots of it. So they pushed the pace against Kentucky, neutralizing the Wildcats' height advantage by scoring as many points in transition as possible. Even when they couldn't push the pace, the Bruins still had some surprising advantages. They outrebounded Kentucky 55-49 in the game.

Perhaps most impressively, the Bruins only used six players the entire game. Starters Dave Meyers, Pete Trgovich, Richard Washington, and Andre McCarter all played the entire 40 minutes, while Ralph Drollinger, the only bench player to see the floor, had 10 points and 13 rebounds in only 16 minutes of action.

Despite playing 10 players and having a height advantage at nearly every position, Kentucky couldn't keep up. UCLA took the lead for good late in the first half, and while Kentucky cut the deficit to one point with six minutes to play, the Bruins pulled away to win 92-85, sending Wooden out a winner. The Bruins had now won 10 of the last 12 championships, and 8 of the last 9. The school with the second-most championships was Kentucky with a mere four.

After the game, when the Bruins were done celebrating, the crowd at the San Diego Arena gave Wooden a four-minute long standing ovation in honor of his incredible coaching career.

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