ON THIS DAY: In 1973, a Very Young Bob Knight Almost Took Down the UCLA Dynasty

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — No one dominated college basketball like John Wooden and UCLA in the 1960s and '70s. And when Wooden's Bruins met Indiana on March 24, 1973 in the national semifinals, the Hoosiers and their young coach — the 32-year-old Bob Knight — were expected to be just another blip on the radar on their march to another title.

After all, UCLA had won six straight national championships and the Bruins were in the midst of what turned out to be an 88-game winning streak, an NCAA record that almost surely will never be broken.

UCLA's dominance was expected, and a trip to the Final Four was an annual rite of passage for Wooden and the Bruins. Indiana was ahead of the curve in Knight's second year in Bloomington, led by seniors Steve Downing and John Ritter, getting a boost from sophomore newcomers Steve Green and John Laskowski and a huge burst of energy from freshmen guards Quinn Buckner and Jim Crews. That was the first year freshmen were allowed to play, so all four of those guys were playing their first college seasons.

The unbeaten Bruins led by 6-foot-11 junior center Bill Walton dominated early, jumping out to a 40-22 lead and the rout was on. But the Hoosiers kept on fighting and the duel between Walton and Downing ranks right up there as one of the best one-on-one battles in tournament history. 

Downing was doing damage despite picking up three fouls in the first half. Knight kept him in the game anyway — he had no choice with no one else who could guard Walton — and the Hoosiers kept picking away. Late in the second half, the Hoosiers' run had gotten them to within two points.

With five minutes to go, the storyline seemed obvious as to how this one was going to turn out. Walton and Downing both had four fouls, and whichever team could keep its star of the floor was going to have a huge edge.

As it turned out, that would be UCLA, as Downing was whistled for his fifth foul on what Indiana fans have said for years was the worst call in IU basketball history, thought Dane Fife (2002) might disagree. No one saw any contact at the time, and even the grainy highlights don't show anything.

With Downing out, UCLA made one more big run and pulled away down the stretch, winning 70-59. The final score is deceiving, because this game was much closer than that.

It was a tough way for Downing to end his Indiana career. He had some magical moments since arriving on campus with best friend George McGinnis, his teammate from the undefeated Indianapolis Washington state champions in 1969. They sat out their freshmen years per NCAA rules and McGinnis played one year at IU before turning pro.

Downing had a 47-point, 25-rebound game against Kentucky in 1971 that many consider the greatest individual performance in Indiana history. He also had the first triple-double in school history earlier that year, scoring 28 points, grabbing 17 rebounds and blocking 10 shots in a February 1971 game against Michigan.

McGinnis never regretted leaving Indiana early, but he wished he could have been around to help his buddy Downing against Walton. 

“Steve Downing got a really bad call against the big center, Bill Walton, and I thought, man, I would have loved to have been on that team,” McGinnis said. “I think I could have made a difference.”

Downing had 26 points that night, and Walton had just 14. He won the individual battle, but Walton and the Bruins won the war.

Getting an early taste of the Final Four was a huge thing for Indiana, because it set the stage for the greatness that would follow for Indiana through the 1975 and 1976 seasons.

"Making that kind of tournament run early in our careers was really important down the road,'' John Laskowski said. "By the time 1975 rolled around, we had all played together for a long time and we built a great bond.''

Other March 24 moments

  • 1984 — Lost to Virginia in the regional final as a favorite, just two days after Dan Dakich and the Hoosiers had upset No. 1-ranked North Carolina in Michael Jordan's last game as a collegian.
  • 1983 — Lost to Kentucky in regional semifinals of NCAA in Knoxville, Tenn.
  • 2013 — Beat Temple in second round of NCAA tourney.

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  • March 22, 1975: Indiana's unbeaten season gets spoiled by Mike Flynn and Kentucky in an epic 92-90 regional final. CLICK HERE
  • March 23, 2002: Mike Davis and Indiana punch their ticket to the 2002 Final Four with a regional final win over Kent State. CLICK HERE 

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