It was almost as if he had been lying in the weeds, just waiting for this moment, as if he had been pacing himself all these days, measuring the time before he would show college basketball what he was really like, that what it had been hearing for three years now was true. It was a propitious occasion, naturally—his school's football team having successfully concluded its chores against a No. 1 opponent; his own abilities having been questioned due to two subpar, losing performances in the last 11 days; the big game being on national TV. It was, finally, a simple case of Austin Carr against UCLA—towering, omnipotent, No. 1 UCLA—and of Carr throwing his head back, his chin out and admonishing his past tormentors in the manner of that eminent philosopher, Flip Wilson. Bruins? "What you see is what you get."
Oh, there had been other games when Carr had felt possessed enough to turn it on for Notre Dame. That one against South Carolina in the finals of the Sugar Bowl tournament last year, for instance. "The perfect game," his coach, Johnny Dee—among others—called it then after Carr had made 19 of 24 field goals, scored 43 points, had six rebounds and 11 assists, played strong defense on John Roche and did not commit a single turnover. There was that 61-point thing he laid on Ohio U. in the NCAA tournament last March, the one that broke Bill Bradley's single-game tournament record. "I gave him a free hand; maybe he overdid it," said Dee that time. Then, too, there were those matches against Kentucky: last season, when he scored 52 and 43 in two losing games; this year, when his 50-point spree at Louisville was enough for the Irish to win 99-92 and enough, also, to show that he could be at his best against the best. Or was it enough?
Was Carr's grand junior season—in which he averaged 38.1 points a game, shot 55% from the floor and once, in an eight-day period, scored 110 points against the three best teams in the land—really enough? Or did Austin Carr need something else to finally accomplish what he wanted most, something a man could really sink his teeth into: say, a 46-point wrecking job that would fire the Irish to an 89-82 victory over UCLA? Something like that.
"We really had them scouted," said Carr after last Saturday afternoon's show in South Bend. "They did all the same things we thought they were going to do. Our fans helped, of course. They whip it up pretty good."
February 1, 1971
Carr did much of the whipping-up on his own, and did it with a touch of everything: breaking the fearsome UCLA zone press, hurling baskets in from outside, flipping them up from inside, throwing some while turning and falling out of bounds, driving for others through the trumpeted UCLA front line. He sprung loose on that jettison move of his off the break, hitting open men when he himself was swarmed under. He got rebounds, made steals, embarrassed four defenders, fouled out Sidney Wicks and finished with 15 of the last 17 Irish points. What Austin Carr did, as any old Golden Domer could have told us, was wake up the echoes and shake down the thunder all by himself.
Before Saturday, UCLA had won 14 straight games, 19 in a row over two years, 48 consecutive nonconference battles and, of course, those four consecutive NCAA titles. But the weekend, obviously, was not made for the Bruins. Their trip into South Bend was hardly the relaxing type of journey a team would need to combat what Carr had waiting. The Bruins came by bus from Chicago after a sloppy win Friday night over Loyola 87-62. But the bus driver got lost ("Somebody said we went 45 miles out of the way," said Coach John Wooden) and the team, sleepy and angry, did not arrive until 3 a.m. More important, Wooden knew, UCLA was just not ready. "We're not sharp and we're not hungry," he said on the bus. "We'd better be against Notre Dame or we're going to lose. Ours is a veteran team, and with so much success it's hard to talk to them about winning more. I feel like I'm talking to a stone wall."
Dee, meanwhile, was having his own problems. Notre Dame, with an 8-4 record, had been defeated by Marquette and Duquesne on the road in two of its last three games, and Carr (who made only 13 of 36 shots against the Dukes) had been pressing. The coach realized, however, that UCLA had not been shooting well from outside either, that the Bruins had been winning with Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Steve Patterson crashing the offensive board and outrebounding their opponents by an average of 15 a game. "We only need help in the trenches," he said. "If Pleick [John] and Catlett [Sid] show up to play, we'll be all right."
The Irish held a team meeting Friday, each man having his say about what was wrong. "I thought I was handling the ball too much," said Carr. "I told the rest to just play their games, to take their shots. UCLA outscored us 11-1 in the first two minutes last year [when Notre Dame lost in Los Angeles 108-77] and we were embarrassed. This time we just wanted to start fast and keep our concentration."
The Irish streaked to a 10-3 lead, starting almost as fast as their followers in the crowd, who held up the banner of the week—"Rowe, Rowe, Rowe Your Wicks, Gently up the Bibby"—and roared constantly as the pep band played the Notre Dame fight song 17 times.
With Carr smoking and the unheralded Pleick battling for his life underneath, Notre Dame pushed its lead to 13 points, 37-24, with about five minutes to go. Wooden had long since abandoned the press, which the Irish had shredded by flooding the deep zone against Wicks. ("I'd hoped they'd use it the whole game," Dee was to say later. "We'd have killed them.") But UCLA came back on some jumpers by Henry Bibby, cut the deficit to 43-38 by halftime and then tied the game at 47-all with 16:40 left.
By then, though Collis Jones was doing a magnificent job keeping Wicks away from the basket, Notre Dame's other big men, Pleick and Catlett, had four fouls apiece. But it was time for Carr to go into his specialty act—two magical mystery tours down the lane for layups after steals. Notre Dame led by five then, and the Bruins never caught up as Wooden—bereft of Terry Schofield, the defender who had injured an elbow after doing the best job on Carr—threw a whole bunch of Kenny Bookers, Larry Hollyfields and even one Sidney Wicks at Carr in an attempt at cloture.
Ultimately, it was the Bruins' inability to handle the elusive Carr that cost them the game. After Carr had been carried away on several hundred shoulders to cut the nets down, Wooden spoke. "There is no one to compare with him man-to-man," he said. "They outplayed us, they were more spirited. But we are a better team."
That may hold for later, but a more accurate appraisal of the day came with 1:07 left in the game when Wicks—saddled with four previous fouls and now guarding Carr outside—slapped at the Notre Dame star's dribble from behind. He missed the ball, hit Carr's arm and was out of the game. "I told you, Coach," Wicks screamed at Wooden as he came to the bench. "I told you not to put me on him. I told you." What Sidney saw is what he got.