Today in sports history: Wooden goes out a winner

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March 31st, 2020

The San Diego Sports Arena is eerily quiet today, but it was bustling with life back on March 31, 1975 when the UCLA Bruins grappled with the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA National Championship Game.

The Bruins were far from invincible in 1975

The Bruins had won nine championships over a 10-year span from 1964 to 1973, but John Wooden’s 1975 squad was far from an unbeatable juggernaut. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gail Goodrich and Bill Walton were all long gone, leaving behind a roster lacking in star power.

The result was a largely uneven season by UCLA’s lofty standards. The Bruins dropped high-profile games to Stanford and Notre Dame, and laid an egg against Washington in late February, losing by 22 points. By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around in March, the Bruins were just the fourth ranked team in the country, and were being counted out by many pundits who lacked confidence in the team’s spotty defense and occasional lapses in effort.

The Wildcats weren’t an easy team to tame

It was quite a different story in Lexington, where the Wildcats compiled a 26-5 record and sliced through the SEC like a knife through warm butter. Joe B. Hall’s high-octane crew finished fourth in scoring and second in Simple Rating System, a metric that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule.

The Wildcats were led by Kevin Grevey, a two-time SEC Player of the Year and consensus All-American who averaged 23.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. The rugged 6-foot-5 Ohio native was also flanked by a pair of future NBA players in Rick Robey and Jack Givens, both of whom were in their freshmen year.

Kentucky enjoyed a dominant tournament run

Kentucky’s road to the Final Four was never really in doubt. A 76-54 opening round drubbing of Marquette was followed by a 17-point blowout of Central Michigan and a 16-point victory over Syracuse. The Wildcats’ only close game was against No. 1 Indiana, whom they beat by two points in the Mideast Regional Final.

UCLA survived a pair of scares

It was quite a different story for the Bruins, who barely held on to beat Montana by three points in the West Regional Semifinals, and needed a last second jump shot from Richard Washington to pull out an overtime victory against Louisville in the Final Four.

The championship game was a seesaw affair

By the time they met on March 31, Kentucky looked like a team of destiny, while UCLA looked like a squad running on fumes. Most pundits were expecting a lopsided affair, but the opposite was true, as the first half alone featured 15 lead changes and five ties.

UCLA eventually pulled away late in the second half thanks to huge games from Washington and Dave Meyers, who combined for 52 points and 23 rebounds. The Bruins also got an unexpected boost from backup big man Ralph Drollinger, who finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. By the time the dust had settled, UCLA had won its 10th national championship by a score of 92 to 85.

Farewell to Wooden

Wooden retired immediately afterwards, bringing an end to a spectacular 29-year career that included 664 wins, 19 conference championships, 12 Final Four appearances and 10 national titles. His timeless lessons on teamwork and success continue to be taught in gyms and classrooms around the world.

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