The UCLA basketball team may be awesome everywhere else, but when it enters the Willamette Valley to play Oregon State and Oregon, it is just plain awful.
Last week disaster struck again. The sky was clear, the temperatures were in the high 60s and UCLA should have felt right at home, but from out of the balmy blue came a blow as shattering as a logger's ax. After having to hustle on Thursday night in Corvallis to beat Oregon State 89-76, on Saturday in Eugene UCLA lost to Oregon, 64-55, for the second time this year and the third time in succession.
Since UCLA began its domination of the Pacific Eight and the NCAA in 1964, it has lost only 16 conference games, but nine of them have been to the Oregon schools. This latest slip on the Oregon Trail dropped the Bruins into a first-place tie with the Oregon Ducks, each with only three games remaining.
Even though UCLA was 19-3 and third-ranked nationally when it left Los Angeles, nobody expected it to get out of the Oregon woods without at least a few splinters. California Coach Dick Edwards even suggested that the Bruins might lose both games, as they did in 1966 and 1974, the latter with Bill Walton. Oregon Coach Dick Harter, utilizing a bit of psychological warfare, flatly predicted that UCLA would definitely lose—to Oregon State.
While the Ducks were staying in the race by edging last-place USC 60-57 on Thursday, the Bruins were all but eliminating the contending Beavers 40 miles away in Corvallis. It was no easy accomplishment, however. UCLA did not take the lead for good until early in the second half and did not break the game open until it unleashed its running attack with 10 minutes to go. In the meantime there were plenty of indications why this young UCLA team is unlike those of Wooden's dynasty days; the lack of confidence (arrogance), the occasional zone defense, the strategic retreats into a delay offense and the absence of a dominating center make it very different. (Oh, there was a pretty good big man on hand—Walton was watching his former team for one of the few times since he became a Portland Trailblazer two years ago.)
But even in the Wooden years, trips to Oregon could be harrowing. The Ducks' McArthur Court is a viperous den known as the Pit. More than 10,500 fans press against the sidelines and peer down from two low, stacked balconies. There is also the usual tenacity of Coach Barter's Kamikaze Kids to help make the setting seem more appropriate for a cockfight than a basketball game.
None of this was lost on the Bruins as they pondered Saturday's game. Everyone agreed it was the toughest place to play in the league, and Coach Gene Bartow, a veteran of both the Missouri Valley and Big Ten, said he had never seen anything to compare with it. Horror stories were told of the times Walton and David Meyers had to fight their way out after landing in the stands, and of the din that can jam instructions from the sideline. "The fans go berserk," said Forward Marques Johnson. "You have to be mentally tough or you'll get intimidated," said Center Brett Vroman.
By some accounts the Pit was about the only advantage Oregon had. Nobody understood how the erratic Ducks (17-7), even with star Forward Greg Ballard, could still be in the conference race, much less looking for another victory over UCLA. "I don't know myself why we have so much success against them," Harter said on Friday. "They have better players and they aren't even our biggest rivals. We'd much rather beat Oregon State and Washington. We don't play them any differently. All I know is that every time we beat them I get invited to speak at five more clinics."
There really is no secret. Oregon plays the same kind of ball that has enabled Harter's former Pennsylvania assistant, Notre Dame's Digger Phelps, to beat the Bruins in each of the last four seasons: aggressive defense, deliberate offense, physical domination. Even though the Bruins knew this was how Oregon would come at them, they were not particularly worried. Guard Roy Hamilton said UCLA had entered "its stretch drive for the national title," and at dinner Friday night Bartow said he could not help but believe that his team would play well. The game might not even be close.
Now in his second year, Bartow is no longer the bundle of nerves and self-doubt he was last season. Then he altered his lineup to suit anyone who threatened to quit; now he says, "If anybody wants to go somewhere else, I'll help him find the school. What happens, happens. I no longer worry over things I can't control."
This is the best possible approach for a game in the Pit. As the Bruins worked out in the empty arena on Friday afternoon, students were laying out sleeping bags so they could get the best seats when the doors opened Saturday. Some, in fact, had been there since after the Thursday night game. When the stampede came Saturday afternoon their number had grown to several hundred.
Even after 50 years, the Pit has few of the trappings of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion. For one thing, it trails in championship banners 10 to one (representing Oregon's victory in the first NCAA tournament 38 years ago). But, like an old vaudevillian, the Pit does have showmanship. Before the game, the crowd warmed up to the blaring music of the pep band and the high-kicking legs of six cheerleaders. Frisbees sailed across the courts from one balcony to another. Down below, King Kong prowled the sideline and the Lone Ranger rode his broomstick horse. When someone produced six of the biggest yellow balloons ever seen, they kept coming down on UCLA's side of the floor, never where the Oregon players were taking their pregame shots. Up in the stands six students gave a flash-card salute to Bartow. BARTOW, the cards briefly read, until one of them was flipped and the message became BARFOW. Welcome to the Pit.
In the first half, however, it looked as if the Bruins might have the last laugh. Although they started slowly, trailing through most of the first 11 minutes, they built a 10-point lead. Oregon stayed in the game only because of the outside shooting of freshman John Murray, who hit on six of seven shots. By halftime the Bruins, unperturbed by either the crowd noise or Murray's hot hand, led 37-29.
The second half was another story. No one can recall when UCLA last scored only 18 points in a 20-minute period. Or when they so completely lost control of a game. The close-in shots and rebounds that had come so easily weren't there. Instead, the Bruins stood around and watched Ballard, the Ducks' alltime leading rebounder and third-leading scorer put on a one-man show.
In the first eight minutes of the period, Ballard accounted for 16 of his team's 18 points by hitting two free throws and seven consecutive jump shots. This brought Oregon back, but it was Center Kelvin Small who put the Ducks ahead 51-49 by tipping in a missed shot at 8:58. It did not seem too significant at the time, but UCLA never led again.
After Ballard blocked and recovered a shot by Dave Greenwood, the Ducks scored again to make the lead four points. Then Vroman turned over the ball by walking in the open court and an Oregon basket made the lead six. UCLA's Johnson barreled inside twice to narrow the margin to two with 4:45 remaining, but the Bruins did not score another basket. All the while, the crowd was shaking the building and when the Ducks had won 64-55 it stormed onto the court and severed the nets at both ends.
Unfortunately, one fan moved ominously in Bartow's direction, which seemed to bother the coach almost as much as the loss. "I still think we'll win the league because our schedule is a little easier than Oregon's," he said, "but these people here are crazy."
In the hallway by the Oregon dressing room, Ballard was standing with a towel around his waist, a net around his neck and 28 points in his scoring column. "No other player in the country has won four of eight against UCLA," he said proudly, though incorrectly. Notre Dame's seniors also share that distinction, but what Ballard did was help Oregon beat UCLA for the third straight time, the longest streak against the Bruins since California won eight in a row from 1957-60.
Harter, meanwhile, was agreeing with a suggestion that UCLA was psyched out by the Pit and its denizens. "You know something else," he said, grinning boyishly. "It's crazy to say, but I can think of three other games against them we probably should have won, too."
C'mon, Dick, let's not get greedy.