So here we are again in unpretentious Oregon, where somebody is always discovering clean air, fresh sod, perfect truth, the Pendleton shirt and 10 surefire ways to beat UCLA in February—while not losing to that other team from Los Angeles, USC, in the process.
That is what had to happen last week for the mad scramble in the Pacific Eight—heretofore known as Snow White Wooden and the Seven Dwarfs—to remain close. But though USC was staggered once, nobody touched UCLA, and now it is probably too late. For one thing, the Bruins are rounding into championship form. For another, the Spider, UCLA's incredible screaming monster, David Meyers, is loose.
What began as the most interesting weekend of Pac Eight basketball in years ended with the Bruins (6-1) installed firmly at the head of the class, Oregon State (5-2) close at hand, USC (4-3) sinking, Oregon (3-4) reeling, and everybody trying to figure out why Stanford (also 4-3) has beaten all the teams ahead of it and lost to three behind.
Another thing to ponder now is whether Meyers can possibly be human. Or is his neck put together with zippers? Although he is known as the Spider, he doesn't exactly creep up on you. One coach says, "Meyers plays as if he has a mad-on against the world."
Just warming up to his full intensity on Friday, the Spider scored 17 points and made a brilliant, intimidating defensive play to protect a 67-60 victory over Oregon State. But the next night he truly roared, dominating the Oregon Ducks, making 14 of 18 field-goal tries, 11 of 11 free throws and 39 points. After UCLA had won 107-103, what did Meyers have to say about his performance? "I like drinking the water in Oregon. It's really cold." Sure, Spider. O.K., men, check the zippers.
Meyers was not the only figure lurking along the Oregon Trail. The Bruins' Richard Washington, a Portland lad who in high school was called by the governor "a natural resource not to be exported," returned home to wreck State with 21 points. Whiling away the tense hours, USC's Gus Williams carried his bowling ball around in a cardboard box. Then he showed why he is one of the best guards in the West by leading the Trojans past Oregon 81-80 and almost rallying them in their 78-75 loss to State.
Meanwhile Referee Lou Soriano was attacked by a spectator in Eugene and had to fight his way to safety. Oregon State Coach Ralph Miller set a Pacific Northwest record for chain smoking. Oregon Coach Dick Harter, the former Penn man, went Quackers, threw his program nearly as high as Miller's smoke rings and lost a game because of it. And then there were hearty Oregonians going around saying things like "Beaver Fever" and "Go Big Green Butt-Kicking Machine," depending on whether they preferred the furry team in Corvallis or the web-footed one in Eugene.
What the weekend also demonstrated was that the Pacific Eight has become the best and best balanced basketball conference in the land. Its record against nonleague opponents is 73-18. All four teams competing in Oregon were ranked in the top 20 when the action started. Two other conference squads (Cal and Washington State) have won more games than they did all last season. And of the 28 league games played, 12 have been decided by three points or fewer or have gone into overtime.
A year ago signs of this impending feast were seen when Oregon State and Oregon upset UCLA on its annual visit to the soggy Willamette Valley. Both hosts, however, lost to USC and were not involved in the race again. This time everybody was bunched at the top just itching to have at one another.
Both Oregon and Oregon State actually were able to look forward to the weekend with some confidence. Harter's Ducks are led by muscular Guard Ron Lee, while their insatiable defense is inspired by another Lee, Bruce. Oregon plays Kung Fu Fighting and the players are not called "Kamikaze Kids" because of almond-shaped eyes. Lesser-known Oregon State gets most of its punch from 6'8", 235-pound Lonnie Shelton, a former high school tight end who has been called "Mean Joe Greene with a shooting touch."
"UCLA is the only contender," Harter said prophetically before the games. "The league hasn't shown we can handle the Bruins yet." But neither northern coach was overlooking the other invader. Harter has never beaten USC, and Miller could count only two victories against the Trojans. "What USC does is ride UCLA's coattails," said Miller through his cigarette smoke. "Kids can't get up for the Trojans and Bruins on the same weekend."
Be that as it may, USC Coach Bob Boyd believes that his team is better on the road than UCLA. The Trojans tend to miss free throws—15 feet seems out of their range—and, Boyd says, "We don't animalize anybody." Still, they are a smart, veteran outfit, disciplined to take only good shots and, in the team's words, not to "drop their pack."
"That means losing poise," says 6'10" senior John Lambert. "What hurts is we've lost two games, but we know we're the best team in the league."
That may come as a shock to the men of UCLA, who two weeks before had defeated USC at home by five points. The Bruins are a different crew this season, surely less talented than in the Walton years when, Meyers says, "monumental clashes" divided the team, but definitely more cohesive and enthusiastic. They even eat meat.
After much criticism from UCLA fans, Guard Pete Trgovich is playing the best basketball of his career, and there is a welcome absence of the old UCLA arrogance. Meyers even recognizes fallibility. "Good teams make a mess of our press," he said. "I get too tired pressing anyway. We have other weapons. There will be no ambush this week."
On Friday night in Corvallis, Meyers took care of that. Exploiting breakdowns in the UCLA press, Oregon State went ahead by eight points in the first half. But Wooden, turning from Wizard to Juggler, made eight lineup changes in 10 minutes to cut into the lead. After the coach "severely chided" the Bruins at intermission, UCLA scored the first eight points of the second half to take command.
Washington, working around the lane against Shelton, scored 17 points in the period as the Bruins maintained an uneasy lead. With 2:10 left, OSU had a chance to cut the margin to three points when Guard Charlie Neal made a steal and headed for a fast-break layup. But trailing the play was the ferocious Meyers at full bore. Planting his feet, faking an exaggerated swoop-leap and screaming something otherworldly, Meyers terrorized Neal into slamming the ball up on the board so hard it caromed nearly to midcourt. The Spider had gobbled up the fly without even leaving his feet, and UCLA was safe.
Forty miles away in Eugene, Southern Cal and Oregon were unsafe at any speed. In a contest that included 51 turnovers, 19 ties and enough howling madness to encourage mob rule at Oregon's renowned "Pit," the fact that the outcome turned on a technical foul was Pit-iful. But it did and the Ducks' Harter, who said, "We deserved to win," had only himself to blame when they didn't.
The Oregon coach had watched his team come from a 10-point deficit in the first half to go ahead briefly late in the game. But with the score tied at 74 and less than a minute left, the Ducks had three shots at taking the lead and none of them dropped. After the third miss USC freshman Steve Malovic grabbed a rebound and fired a long pass to the elusive Williams who drove in, crashing into Oregon's Mark Barwig as he scored.
It was the kind of foul call that normally goes against the visitors, but this time it did not. Referee Soriano whistled a block on Barwig, and Harter could not restrain himself. Flinging his program, he protested enough to draw a technical and create a six-point play for USC and, ultimately, the gut-wrenching defeat for Oregon.
Williams, who finished with 28 points and easily outplayed the Ducks' Lee, made his regular free throw plus the technical shot. On the ensuing USC possession, Lee fouled the Trojans' Bob Trowbridge, who converted two more foul shots for an 80-74 USC lead. Yessir, it was the old six-point trick all right.
Remarkably, Oregon was not through. Lee made a layup, Barwig scored after a steal and the Trojans committed a turnover. Oregon, trailing only 80-78, had possession under the USC basket with 17 seconds to go. Then came another stunner of a foul call. This one was assessed against Oregon's Stu Jackson, who forearmed Trowbridge while breaking toward the baseline on the inbounds play.
While Boyd was savoring the Trojans' surprising 17-for-21 performance at the foul line, Trowbridge was occupied with other things. Leaving the court, he noticed a fan attacking Ref Soriano, so he joined the fray. "Soriano hit him in the mouth, I hit him in the stomach and the police took him away," Trowbridge said. The Pit had struck again.
If Southern Cal won Friday when a foul was called, it was cruel justice that the Trojans lost to Oregon State on Saturday when one was not.
It was a dramatic evening in Corvallis. Before the game a spectator who had driven from Seaside, Ore. suffered a heart attack in the stands. Boyd threatened to take his team off the floor because of a flying Frisbee that interrupted the Trojans' warmup. And Southern Cal blew another 10-point lead, this one with 12 minutes to play.
As Oregon State's Shelton (27 points) and USC's Clint Chapman (28) battled to a standoff inside, the Trojans' Williams inexplicably did not take a shot in the second half until the Beavers had caught USC at 62-all with 8:40 remaining. From that point there were five more ties before OSU's Don Smith went backdoor on Trowbridge for a layup that gave Oregon State the lead for good at 76-74.
USC had a chance to tie the game with 20 seconds left, but Williams missed one of two free throws. Then USC had another opportunity when the Beavers, under pressure, threw the ball up for grabs.
It was scramble here, scuffle there as the ball went every which way before Malovic came up with it for the Trojans. Pausing in the foul circle, he was jolted from behind and the ball squirted to midcourt, where George (Ice-T) Tucker controlled for Oregon State. No whistle was blown to put Malovic at the line and Williams had to foul in hope of getting the ball back for the Trojans. Tucker converted twice for the 78-75 victory and sole possession of second place.
"A critical play for us," Boyd called Malovic's fumble. "It was a slugging foul and the referees blew it."
Oregon State's Miller, relieved by the victory, said, "We tried to key this weekend as one big package. UCLA and USC are equally fine teams."
This would have been a reasonable enough statement except for what the Bruins' Meyers was doing that evening in Eugene. Even before the UCLA-Oregon battle Harter had spoken of the 6'8" senior as "an unbearable matchup." So he gave 6'4" Lee the task of guarding Meyers. It was asking too much, considering Lee's heavy offensive responsibilities as well as Meyers' obvious desire to take over the game from the outset. And it became an embarrassing decision.
In a fraction more than six minutes at the start of the game, Meyers made five shots and scored 13 points to the Oregon team total of 12. Even after he drove Lee back to the backcourt where he belonged and began to take severe physical poundings from two bigger men, the results were the same. The Ducks spurted to three brief leads, but by halftime the Spider had 22 points, and UCLA was ahead 47-42.
Oregon's Jackson did a creditable job on Meyers early in the second half, and the Ducks came to within two, 69-67. Then Meyers bombed from afar. UCLA, which shot 74% in the second half, flashed to a 10-point lead, then dropped back to four at 85-81. So Meyers bombed again. Every time Oregon made a move, the Spider legged back to spin his web. "I was elbowed, kneed, butchered, blasted, destroyed," Meyers said. "Maybe I like it."
It was an exhausting struggle. By the time it was over, Lee had fouled out, a miserable 19-for-50 shooting weekend behind him, Harter looked totally drained and even Wooden showed a rare open collar and askew tie.
In the locker room the UCLA coach walked among his troops, raising his fists in a startling outburst of elation. "I've got a frog in my throat," he said.
The Pacific Eight has to be more concerned with that Spider Wooden has in uniform.