Stop me if you've heard this one, but Notre Dame beat UCLA by three points in Pauley Pavilion last Saturday night. Because this is the third straight season that the game in Los Angeles between the Irish and Bruins has ended with Notre Dame on top, Coach Digger Phelps told his players afterward, "You own this town." Not only did the Irish enthusiastically agree, but the sheriff of Los Angeles County, Peter Pitchess, who was standing in the dressing room at the time, made no move to arrest Phelps for boasting without a permit.
Clearly, all the evidence is in Notre Dame's favor. Last week's victory, an 81-78 thriller, was not only the Irish's third straight in Pauley Pavilion, where UCLA's record is 204-7. It was also Notre Dame's third win in a row in the annual home-and-home series and its fifth in the last six meetings between the teams. Since 1974, the Bruins have been 130-13 against the rest of the universe and 4-7 against that little old Catholic school in South Bend, Ind.
The Irish won last week because junior Guard Rich Branning and sophomore Forward Kelly Tripucka exploited the Bruins' weak middle for 21 points each, either driving for baskets or drawing fouls while slithering toward the hoop. After the strongest facet of UCLA's game—its press—had brought it from 13 points behind to a 62-62 tie with 6:30 remaining, Branning and Tripucka combined for 15 of Notre Dame's last 19 points. For Branning it was only the latest in a string of clutch performances against the Bruins. And it was enjoyed by 25 relatives and friends from his nearby hometown of Huntington Beach.
"When I made my recruiting visit to Notre Dame three years ago," Branning says, "the last thing coach Phelps told me before I got on the plane to come home was, 'I want you to come here and beat UCLA.' That made an impression on me, because as a kid I grew up on UCLA basketball. Playing there was all I dreamed about, but when I finally chose my college, I picked Notre Dame. I felt it had the best combination of academics and athletics."
December 18, 1978
Branning was only 14 years old and still an unquestioning Bruin fan when Phelps brought his first Notre Dame team to Los Angeles. That was seven years ago, back when UCLA was hanging up national championship banners as fast as Nell Wooden could stitch them. Phelps still talks about that visit, but without any fondness. Only four days before, the Irish had lost to Indiana by 65 points, and UCLA, it seemed, might win by 100. To illustrate that fact, a Los Angeles newspaper printed a picture of a gas chamber with the caption NATIONAL TELEVISED EXECUTION. Sure enough, Notre Dame was put away, 114-56.
In the following years Phelps made each game against UCLA a holy crusade and the standard by which he judged the success of his program. He read everything he could find about John Wooden and began keeping a thick notebook of UCLA's offensive and defensive strategies. Finally, in South Bend on Jan. 19, 1974, Notre Dame ended the Bruins' record 88-game unbeaten streak, and on Dec. 11, 1976 the Irish became the first and only non-conference team to overcome the perils of Pauley.
"It took a long time, but we've finally caught up with them," Phelps said last Friday night. He was sitting in a car that was taking him to a high school game in Los Angeles. "Guys like Branning and Bill Laimbeer, who played not far from here at Palos Verdes High, have helped us neutralize the UCLA myth. They played against many of the Bruin players in high school, so they aren't awed." Indeed, the two finalists in the California Interscholastic Federation's southern championships four years ago were Branning's and Laimbeer's teams. Palos Verdes, the winner, had reached the finals by defeating a Verbum Dei squad that featured UCLA's current stars, David Greenwood and Roy Hamilton. Greenwood and Hamilton visited Notre Dame, too, but they chose to stay home where it is warm and play for the Bruins.
"I can't figure out why Rich wanted to go from the beach to all that bad weather," Greenwood says. "When Roy and I went there, it was raining and lightning and the wind was blowing. Then somebody told me there was a tornado watch, and I said, 'Get me out of here.' "
That is the way Greenwood probably felt about Southern California last week as temperatures dropped to record lows and a few snowflakes fell. When the Irish left Indiana there had been the usual two-inch white carpet on the ground, so Phelps figured that even the weather was in his favor.
Despite what recent Notre Dame-UCLA games, local air masses—and common sense—seemed to suggest, the Bruins were favored. Although both teams had won their first three games by wide margins, No. 2 UCLA was a four-point choice over No. 3 Notre Dame. Obviously it was an important game for both schools, even if Bruin Coach Gary Cunningham was loath to admit it. "It's more important to them than to us," he said Woodenly, "because they're an independent and we're in a conference." After a little prodding, Cunningham briefly let down his guard and conceded, "It will give us an indication of how good a team we have."
To the Bruin players, the game was more than a mere non-conference barometer. "I'm excited about it," said Hamilton. "Our ranking is on the line, and I want some revenge for last year." Greenwood added, "It's not just Notre Dame. I'd really like to beat Digger."
When Phelps heard about that before his team's Friday afternoon workout, he grinned and said, "If David feels that way, maybe I'll stay home." Then he thought about it for a moment and changed his mind. "No, if I stay home, nobody will be able to boo me." As Phelps bantered with a small crowd of students, the Irish order of the day became clear: be loose, be cool, have fun. There was nothing in Pauley to be afraid of. In contrast to the Bruins' no-nonsense preparation earlier in the day, the Notre Dame workout included high-spirited games of dribble tag and something called "Irish football." "We're an emotional school and an emotional team," said Laimbeer. "They're very unemotional, like a pro team."
Still another difference between the teams was their coaches' pregame approaches. Whereas Phelps wanted Notre Dame to be ready for anything UCLA might try, Cunningham preferred that his Bruins perfect their own style and not worry much about their opponent's. Here again, Cunningham was borrowing from his mentor, Wooden. That only works, however, when the manpower is decidedly in your favor. This year UCLA is weak at center and at the forward opposite Greenwood, which makes the Bruins easy prey for an aggressive, board-pounding team like the Irish.
One thing UCLA can do exceptionally well is press, and that is exactly what it did to eat away the 13-point lead Notre Dame had with 13:13 to go in the game. But no sooner had the Bruins tied the score than Tripucka powered inside for a three-point play. Haifa minute later he went to the foul line for two of his 11 straight successful free-throw attempts. In the closing minutes, as had been the case all night, when the Bruins had to work out of their set offense, they were unable to penetrate Notre Dame's zone, and only Guard Brad Holland showed he could shoot over it. Still, because it repeatedly got breakaways off its press. UCLA might have won had not Notre Dame's Stan Wilcox extended a one-point lead to three with a couple of free throws 15 seconds before the final buzzer.
The game was over, but one question remained: What did it all mean? Holland, who led UCLA with 21 points on 10-for-13 shooting, disagreed with the notion that Notre Dame has a whammy over the Bruins. "We have just as much talent as they do," he said. "It just happened the same way again." Cunningham reminded everyone that, despite what the score said, "The game was good for us, because it helped us prepare for the conference." And, after all, he added, "That's the main purpose of the game."
Maybe next year UCLA will decide that the main purpose of the game is to beat Notre Dame. The time has long since passed when the Bruins can walk onto their home floor and defeat a good opponent just by showing up. The only team that can do that in Pauley these days is Notre Dame.