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PO-TENTIAL ALMOST STOLE IT

Dec. 10, 1973
Dec. 10, 1973

Table of Contents
Dec. 10, 1973

Po-Tential
Lull
Steve's Booke
Wild Goose
College Football
Pro Basketball
Icarus
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

PO-TENTIAL ALMOST STOLE IT

Maryland's Lefty Driesell said his Terps could take UCLA and, aww, they almost did, striking terror in Bruin breasts before losing a thriller

The UCLA of the East, hopefully, was buried once and for all last week out there on the campus of the real thing. Because Maryland—my Maryland, your Maryland, George Beall's Maryland, Lefty Driesell's Maryland and nobody's UCLA ever again—can now stand up and be counted on its own. Certainly no more phony names and gimmickry for the Terrapins. They earned the right to be saluted on their merits, their talent and especially on the marvelous play of their senior center, Len Elmore (see cover). Saturday night the Terrapins finally dumped the UCLA monkey off their backs and almost beat it to death in the process. Indeed, in their 65-64 loss in the den of the national champions they chilled local partisans to the bone and set the hearts and future hopes of others aflutter everywhere else. In defeat Maryland gained more honor, respect and downright envy than it had in any of its 50 victories over the two years past.

This is an article from the Dec. 10, 1973 issue Original Layout

"It ain't got a W after it but I sure am proud," said Driesell, whose feelings were clearly evident as the clock ticked away after Maryland's last chance for victory was ruined by a broken play. When UCLA's Tommy Curtis roared down the floor with the ball and was fouled by Mo Howard at the buzzer, Lefty went to his knees, signaled to the referees that the game was over and then rushed them to make sure Curtis would get no free throws to pad the margin. This was a measure of Driesell's pride. He had just lost the biggest game of his life by one point and he wanted the world to remember it was only by a point.

Earlier, what Maryland had done in astonishing order was fall behind by 9-0 at the beginning of the game, come back to lead 17-15, get its whole team outrebounded by Bill Walton in the first half (he had 20) and fall back again by eight points with 3:37 to play in the game after its usual high scorers, Tom McMillen and John Lucas, had missed 18 of 23 shots between them.

Still, behind by 65-57, the Terps proceeded to outcool, outgut and outhustle the champions down the stretch; to switch to a zone, hold UCLA scoreless the rest of the way and come within one magnificent, superclutch defensive move—courtesy of the Bruins' Dave (Spider) Meyers, didn't ya just know it?—of stopping the UCLA winning streak of 76 games.

The deciding play was set up after Maryland's stellar floor leader, Lucas, first missed a whirling driver over Walton with less than two minutes remaining, only to come right back, steal a wild UCLA pass at midcourt and race in for a layup that made the score 65-64. Now UCLA froze the ball, but with 22 seconds left Howard fouled Richard Washington, even as Bruin Coach John Wooden stood at midcourt and shouted at his players to keep the ball away from Washington.

The tall freshman, who was in the game only because senior Keith Wilkes had fouled out, missed on the one-and-one and Maryland called time. Driesell's plan was to try to get the ball to McMillen down low with Elmore drawing Walton away by moving high off the key, a vantage point from which he had been scoring all evening. Lucas was to control the action and take the shot himself if nobody was open. But as Lucas darted for the baseline with seconds left, UCLA's 6'8" Meyers sprung from behind McMillen, encountered Lucas and knocked the ball away from him as he went up for the shot. Not finished, Meyers saved the ball from going out of bounds, then slapped it—and, in effect, the game—out of danger to Curtis.

"This wasn't any Texas A&Ms or Citadels out there," said the relieved Curtis afterward. "They are awfully tough."

Maryland excelled on defense. The UCLA players attributed their 34% shooting to "too much adrenaline," but Wooden acknowledged that the Terp defense had most of the answers. McMillen and Tom Roy held the shorter Wilkes to four baskets. Lucas stopped Curtis with five. Elmore overplayed Walton on the left side of the lane, prohibiting his favorite turnaround bank shot and forcing him to drive the middle into heavy traffic where he had to go to his hook. He missed 15 of 23 shots. In all, Wilkes, Curtis and Walton missed 40 of 57, easily the worst shooting performances of their careers.

Though Walton finished with 18 points and 27 rebounds, Elmore (with 19 and 14) was all over him in the second half. Maryland outshot the Bruins, outrebounded them and scored two more baskets. They needed three more. "I couldn't get a hot streak," McMillen said. "My hands, I don't know, my hands just didn't get comfortable."

The confrontation never was meant to be comfortable. As anyone down range from the Terrapin publicity tank guns knows, this was the climax of a kind of manufactured antipathy bristling between Maryland and UCLA for some time now. Undoubtedly it stemmed from Driesell's infamous "UCLA of the East" proclamation, made upon taking the head coaching job at Maryland four years ago. Subsequently, it has seemed, Lefty tried the line once every hour or so, but in truth the real culprit was the media, which took the quote and strangled it almost to death, using it to haunt Driesell and mock him.

When he arrived in Los Angeles, in fact, Driesell was immediately obliged to straighten everybody out by insisting he never said Maryland was the "UCLA of the East" but only that his team had the "po-tential" (Lefty accents the first syllable here, as in "po' boy") to be that. This explanation was accepted at face value until minutes later when, in answer to a question about the potential of this year's team, Lefty claimed, "Aww, I don't even know what the word po-tential means." Right then the man from The Washington Post agreed that Lefty had the potential to be another Ron Ziegler.

Driesell also attempted to out-Wooden Wooden in his underplaying of the importance of the contest, but nobody was swallowing that either. Lefty had been waiting on this one for a long, long time.

The preparation may have started on the night last March when, after losing to Providence in the Eastern Regionals, he sat in a motel room and told McMillen, "Let's forget this. Our next game is UCLA." Maybe it began a year before that, when Maryland won the NIT and Driesell knew he had a team that could go head to head with the Bruins. Perhaps his anticipation even started two years before that when Lefty upstaged the entire 1970 NCAA finals right outside his office door in College Park by introducing to a screaming campus his prize recruits, Elmore and Jap Trimble from New York's Power Memorial High, the very school that had given Lew Alcindor to UCLA. It was finally probable that Driesell had been ready for last week's game since the 12th day of never.

Lefty watched UCLA films over and over this summer, questioned coaches about the Bruins and pored over Wooden's books and articles. Last Tuesday, as he started to leave the office at two a.m., an assistant coach told Driesell that only 100 hours remained before the UCLA game. Lefty stayed to work some more.

Moreover, the Maryland-UCLA thing was carried along by the parallel careers of McMillen and Walton, who have been far-off competitors ever since their lives were intertwined and brought to public attention on wings of song.

It has been, as McMillen says, a "nebulous rivalry," but a rivalry nonetheless, and it started when the two were precocious basketball lads and high school honor students at Mansfield, Pa. and La Mesa, Calif. The best big men in the East and West, back then. Compared and commented on; who was the best? One to Maryland. The other to UCLA. Naturally, fabulous freshmen.

In the years since, while Walton has come to rule the sport, all McMillen has done is become an All-America on one of the better teams in the land, win an Olympic team berth and an NIT MVP trophy and, off the court, become a Rhodes scholar applicant and a participant in so many government-related activities his teammates call him "the Senator."

To his basketball public it has not been enough and last week the Maryland student newspaper, The Diamondback, acknowledged the general feeling by writing in an otherwise sympathetic story that "many people here feel Tom McMillen has cheated them. They expected him to dominate the college game and he hasn't."

It is obvious that while McMillen judges his play as harshly as anyone, he is resentful of the expectations of others as well as the comparisons with Walton. "I didn't write all the publicity," he said the day before their big meeting. "This game isn't a personal crusade. I've never met Walton and it's obvious he's too team-oriented to care about individual duels. Besides, he won't even guard me; he'll be on Elmore. We've seen enough film to know how great he is. But I know what I can do, too. I'm just glad we're playing now when we're seniors. We wouldn't have been so sure of ourselves as sophomores."

Tiny swirls of controversy preceded the game much of the week. There was a prank rumor circulated around Washington and Baltimore that McMillen had broken his leg. Word filtered through Los Angeles that UCLA was out to get the Terrapins and Wooden would pour it on if he could. Driesell did his part. He said that originally the game was supposed to be the home opener for both teams but that UCLA had "slipped in" Arkansas on the schedule for the night before. J. D. Morgan, the UCLA athletic director, said Arkansas had been scheduled before Maryland. The only solution was to subpoena the tapes.

Just before a press luncheon on Friday, Driesell and Wooden stood together in Pauley Pavilion and stared at the ceiling where all the UCLA championship banners hang. Driesell said, "You got nine of those things, coach. I'd give up an arm to have just one." Wooden did not ask which arm.

Later Driesell assured everyone that UCLA basketball was the "eighth wonder of the world" but that Maryland was there to run, to win and to break the streak. "You don't have to worry about us holding the ball and slowing it down," he said. Then he looked out over the crowd and saw Greg Lee and Keith Wilkes laughing. "Aww, come on," said Lefty, "you guys aren't worried anyway."

That afternoon McMillen sat in his motel room across Sunset Boulevard from the Bel Air Sands where UCLA stays on home-game weekends and talked about the "strange atmosphere" and the sense that this was a "climactic moment" in his life. "If I didn't slap myself in the face I'd swear it was March and the NCAA finals," he said. "I wake up from dreams about UCLA."

Among the Bruins across the way, Lee said he felt "exhilaration" by finally being able to play Maryland. "It's a fantastic feeling to get at somebody good and realize you have to play well to win. We remember as freshmen when everyone said McMillen was the best ever. That wasn't his fault, but Bill remembers, too. They are about to find out about each other."

What Walton and McMillen found out was that their skills are vastly dissimilar and that neither was up to the task of playing his best in this ultimate competition. Walton did wind up guarding McMillen some, notably the first two times the Maryland player attempted to go inside to the hoop. On both occasions the redhead put the ball back in the Senator's teeth. Minutes later, when Elmore blocked one of Walton's own shots, the UCLA center congratulated him with "nice goaltend." It was not a violation, just Walton's peculiar way of warning that the battle had been joined.

All of this came during the first 6:18 of the game when Maryland was unable to score a field goal. Walton was blasting away everything the Terps threw up or catching everything they missed. It was a horror show of major proportions that continued throughout the half as Maryland got only two baskets inside and three offensive rebounds.

Walton's inhospitable attitude did not keep Elmore from later admitting his own substantial awe. "They can say what they want about the rest of this outfit and the alumni too. Big Red is the baddest dude anywhere. I blocked him out, used muscle, did my best. He keeps coming. He's so much better than I thought. But we proved that when he has a human night, they're in trouble."

Possibly the Terrapins proved more than that to themselves. On the last heartbreaking play that could have put Maryland in the record books, the mass of his basketball life swept through Len Elmore's mind. He swiped at the loose ball hopelessly, looked up at the clock, then threw his arms down in despair. "All I could think of was next time, next time," he said. "I feel sorry for the rest of the teams that have to play us because we are going to win big and get another shot at these guys."

As Lefty would say, the po-tential is certainly there.

PHOTOSHEEDY & LONGForced by McMillen and Elmore away from his good bank shot, Walton tries a driving hook.PHOTOSHEEDY & LONGNormally an under-the-basket shooter, Elmore went outside to gun over a menacing Walton.PHOTOSHEEDY & LONGSuperb floorman Lucas stole a pass to bring the Terps within a point as Meyers looked on.