If college basketball's first Dynamite Bowl began at sundown and ended in letdown, it was only because for 4½ minutes one team remembered who it was and the other completely forgot. It was not Big Bad Red versus Little David and the Four Wolves after all. It was instead a high-class playground contest that only turned when one side—yes, energy fans—just ran out of gas.
What UCLA's 84-66 destruction of North Carolina State turned out to be for more than 30 minutes was a vicious, classic struggle blessed by defense and picturesque jumping, plagued only by fouls and climaxed by a final quarter in which the Wolfpack suddenly revealed sheep's clothing and UCLA moved away with indomitable ease to its 79th straight victory.
"We wanted to play them straight up vanilla," said a disappointed State coach, Norm Sloan, "but they just did more things good."
What the Wolfpack did not do good Saturday in this long-awaited matchup at the St. Louis Arena was compressed into a tight interval that came shortly after UCLA's Bill Walton reentered the battle in the second half. With the score tied at 54 and 9½ minutes remaining in the game, State lost all cohesion, missed passes, cast off weird shots, failed to get back on defense and seemed oblivious to whom they were in against. By the time the Bruins had scored nine straight points, and then 10 straight, the Wolfpack knew, all right, but the score was 73-56 and it was too late. Walton's presence alone was enough to account for the Wolfpack panic. He got two baskets as well as most of the rebounds in the splurge. Tommy Curtis hurt little Monte Towe with seven points during the stretch and Keith Wilkes scored eight.
It is a matter of record that the smooth 6'6" senior, Wilkes, is always overlooked until the big game. Then he shines. As a sophomore he destroyed Florida State in the NCAA finals and last week he shadowed the fabulous State leaper, David Thompson, into missing 13 of 20 shots and held him to 17 points.
Wilkes also was responsible—along with substitute Ralph Drollinger who picked up eight points—for holding the Pack at bay while Walton was sojourning on the bench for 21 minutes in the middle of the game with four fouls. The Bruins lost only two points to N.C. State during the hiatus. "Coach said keep it close until Bill got back in," Wilkes said. Scoring 15 of his points during that time, Wilkes kept it close.
Probably State lost the game right then, failing to take advantage after its own tall pivot, Tom Burleson, had courageously fought Walton to a standstill and, aided by Thompson, drove him to the bench in foul trouble at 11:00 of the first half. Early on, the board play was ferocious and Walton opened up a nice cut on Burleson's nose before he exited. But Burleson picked up a third foul a few minutes later and had to sit down himself. Which left it up to Thompson.
One thing the 6'4" Thompson did in the first half was miss 10 of 13 shots, but everything else he did was memorable. Thompson plays the game somewhere high up in a place that exists only in the minds of other men. On two defensive plays under the basket he was beaten by, first, the 6'11" Walton, then Wilkes—only to come from behind them and, remarkably, to stuff the ball back on both.
On offense the Pack had the audacity to challenge Walton's authority by lobbing passes that Thompson would cradle in the rafters and attempt to finesse into the basket. The sad fact was that nothing would drop for him consistently: not when State came from six points behind in the first half to lead 33-32 at intermission; not when the Pack rallied from eight down in the second half to reach the tie at 54; and not at all when UCLA pulled away and his teammates ignored Thompson down the stretch.
"They stayed close for so long we expected them to keep coming at us," said UCLA's Dave Meyers, who played splendidly with 15 points and 11 rebounds, "but they never did come on."
Another Bruin, Greg Lee, could speak only of Thompson. "Nobody lobs us, ever," he said, "let alone complete them four feet above the rim. I can't believe this cat. If they hadn't had him we'd have won by 50."
Before this banner conflict between the No. 1 and the No. 2 teams came the by-now antiquated pronouncements out of Los Angeles. The game, said Coach John Wooden, was just a "rehearsal" for the Pacific Eight Conference season and even "meaningless." Not to be underdone, Sloan called the occasion only his team's "13th most important game" of the year. If that was the case, a lot of people were excited over nothing.
In truth, last spring N.C. State, aching for a shot at UCLA after its perfect 27-0 season had ended prematurely due to NCAA probation, dreamed up and proposed the spectacle to the TV networks. ABC agreed to take the plunge, offering UCLA enough inducements to go halfway across the country even during exam week.
The location of the game, however, was a bone of contention. Neither school would be caught dead on the other's home court, of course, so Willis Casey, the athletic director at State, jammed his tongue into his cheek and suggested Greensboro, site of this season's NCAA finals. "The better for UCLA to practice for the final four," said Casey. J. D. Morgan, the UCLA aide, made a guffaw that could be heard in Nome. The Houston Astrodome and Madison Square Garden were mentioned but the dome is more suitable for rodeos and Billy Graham than for basketball, and the Garden was vetoed by UCLA, presumably for having too many painted ladies and too much cigar smoke.
Finally, the St. Louis Arena was selected as a logical neutral zone because of its location, a 19,300 seating capacity and the fine job St. Louis U. performed in hosting the NCAA finals last March.
Both schools were guaranteed $125,000 and tickets were scaled at $10 top—surpassing the UCLA-Houston game as the most profitable college game ever. For its investment, ABC came away with a steal. At first hesitant about gambling on college basketball, a sport always presumed only of "regional interest," network officials were congratulating each other last week on a major coup. They expressed amazement and delight as interest in the contest mushroomed around the country and the audience promised to be huge. Indeed, the game may be the catalyst for a series of regular-season network telecasts of college basketball in the future.
That would appeal to all Pack-backers, North Carolina Governor Jim Holshouser and everybody else who flew into St. Louis on charters from Raleigh, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Atlanta. Everybody, including the N.C. State Wolf himself, Jim Hefner, who labored with an enormous furry head. The Wolf was asked if he had to carry the head around all the time. "I don't have to," he said. "I get to."
The same spirit permeated the State team, which seemed at ease all week, under Sloan's loose rein. The coach's most important contribution to his team has been a tendency to leave it alone and let it play. "We have no tricks," he said in his easy way before the game. "We're just going to do our thing, let UCLA do its thing and see whose thing is best."
State rooters had outpurchased UCLA in tickets four to one, so the lobby of the Chase-Park Plaza Hotel, where both teams stayed, quickly turned into Wolfpack country. N.C. State red was everywhere and so were signs like SHOOT DOWN THE WALTON GANG. Each time the 7'4" Burleson set foot in the place he was assaulted with flashbulbs. The fact that State was a team unfulfilled, its capabilities a mystery, contributed to the atmosphere as much as UCLA's one-point escape from Maryland two weeks earlier. Since then the Bruins had acted as if they were waiting for the other ACC shoe to drop. They were not shooting well, lacked good point-guard play and weak-side rebounding help. It was all just false insecurity.
Before the game Thompson said, "It is an honor to play the champions." He also said, "They will have to play their best to beat us."
As it turned out all UCLA needed was Bill Walton sitting on the bench preparing to wreak his personal havoc. "State knew he was ready," said Wooden afterward. "It was something for them to think about."
And so it was. When Big Red came back in, the Bruins played their best and the game was over just like that. The meeting in St. Louis was further proof that it is an honor to play UCLA. Teams don't have to. They get to.