There are 28 public universities in California—a UC-Santa Cruz here, a Cal State-Stanislaus there. Last week, abetted by red carnations and rowdy fans, one of the least known of the 28 clawed its way out of obscurity for a few deliciously exciting moments and almost made it to the NCAA finals this weekend in St. Louis, which would have been the hoop equivalent of Slippery Rock getting a Rose Bowl bid. The creator of the drama was California State University, Fullerton, more popularly known as Cal State Who?
The Titans of Fullerton did not understand that they had no business being in the NCAA West Regional title game in Albuquerque last Saturday afternoon. They were up against Arkansas, the winningest (56-5) team in the nation during the last two seasons and a victor, two days before, over powerful UCLA.
The absurdity of the situation did not hit the Titans even when they fell 15 points behind in the first half, so they merely pressed, scrambled and shot until they made up all 15 points and went into the lead. Only a long-distance, rattle-around-the-rim jump shot and a steal with four seconds to go saved the Razorbacks' bacon 61-58. The Fullerton fanatics had been chanting, "We believe! We believe!" and at the buzzer, Arkansas and the rest of the country were believers, too.
Fullerton, originally named Orange County State College, was carved out of the citrus groves southeast of Los Angeles only 18 years ago, but it has almost 23,000 students. Until the past few weeks the school's top athletic accomplishments were an appearance by its baseball team in the 1976 College World Series and winning the national women's basketball title in 1971.
March 27, 1978
The Titans play their home games in a gym that now holds 3,150 people, because 1,500 balcony seats were declared unsafe. Their star player, Greg Bunch, was recruited only by the likes of Gonzaga and Eastern New Mexico. The school is mistakenly referred to as "Fullerton State" in the NCAA Guide, and its own press brochure is hardly the latest in slick publications. The Titans finished only third in a so-so conference, the Pacific Coast Athletic Association. Still, Coach Bobby Dye, his players and their fans believed.
The PCAA is one of those leagues that puts on a moneymaking postseason tournament that makes the regular schedule almost meaningless. Fullerton upset San Diego State and Long Beach State to advance to the NCAA's first round. Dye and his assistants wore red carnations in their lapels for the Long Beach game and decided to do the same against New Mexico, which came to the NCAAs with a 24-3 record and a No. 5 ranking. The Titans beat the Lobos 90-85 and suddenly the regional was without its host school and biggest draw.
Fullerton's fairy tale should have ended Thursday night in its second NCAA game, against USF. The Titans' 6'8" center, Steve Shaw, would be no more able to handle USF's seven-foot, 270-pound Bill Cartwright than a man would be capable of cutting down a redwood with a cheese sheer. If Shaw's teammates sagged in too far to help, Winford Boynes, Chubby Cox and the other USF stars would have a field-goal festival.
Sure enough, USF led by 12 points at halftime, and Cartwright had 19. Then the Titans, accurate shooters and deft pickpockets, put on a press. USF's lead dwindled to three, and the teams battled evenly the last 15 minutes. With 2:38 to go, Cartwright was called for a charge, which cost the Dons an important basket, and that enabled Fullerton's Keith Anderson to win the game by canning a long jump shot with 0:05 to play. Fullerton had itself another miracle, 75-72.
In the other semifinal, some marvelous shooting by Marvin Delph (nine of 11 from the field) put Arkansas ahead of UCLA by as many as 16 points, and the Hogs led at the half by 13. Forward Jim Counce was keeping UCLA All-America David Greenwood away from the backboards, and Sidney Moncrief was putting the clamps on Bruin Guard Raymond Townsend. The Arkansas fans, sporting buttons that said HOGS ARE BEAUTIFUL, were ecstatic.
But the Hogs looked like dogs when UCLA started pressing in the second half, and soon their lead became a deficit. It seemed as if the Bruins were going to race past Arkansas and not stop until they had won their 11th NCAA championship trophy. Instead, Arkansas regained its poise, scored six straight points and held on for a 74-70 victory.
Last year Arkansas had been 15 points ahead of Wake Forest at halftime in the NCAA playoffs and had blown the game. The Hogs are a much smarter team now—so much so that one opposing coach says, "When you're playing Arkansas, you're playing six coaches."
You're also playing against the sharp-shooting Delph. And against another 6'4" leaper, junior Sidney Moncrief, the team's leading rebounder. And against 6'4" Ron Brewer, the quarterback and penetrator.
"Three All-Americas. Three!" says Orville Henry, sports editor of the Arkansas Gazette, who after watching Oscar Robertson score 56 points against the Razorbacks in 1958 did not cover another basketball game for 12 years.
Surely this time, carnations or not, Cal State Who? would not catch anybody napping. Arkansas knew that the skinny forward, Kevin Heenan, with Jerry West's number (44) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's goggles, could shoot; that Bunch could score his surname; that Anderson and fellow Guard Mike Linden were lightning bugs.
When Arkansas led 39-24 at halftime, Fullerton had the Hogs where they wanted them—in complacency. Arkansas Coach Eddie Sutton warned his players that Fullerton would not quit. He was right.
Again the Razorbacks could not handle a press, and again they regained their poise, but only after Fullerton had gone ahead 58-57. Brewer brought the ball down and calmly tossed in a jump shot from the top of the key to regain the lead for Arkansas with 1:23 left. "It took courage for Brewer to take that shot," said Dye, "and he stuck it down deep."
With four seconds to go, Anderson had the ball for Fullerton, but instead of trying another long jumper, he dribbled into the middle. Moncrief or Counce or Brewer—each credited one of the others—knocked the ball away.
"It was as clean a steal as there was in the game," said Counce.
"I thought I was fouled on that last play," said Anderson, "but it's too late to cry now."
So Arkansas (31-3) is in the final four, the first time a Southwest Conference team has made it since SMU in 1956, but its victory was hardly greater than the triumph the Titans earned in their defeat. After all, no longer would basketball fans refer to the school as Cal State Who?