On Jan. 20, 1968, No. 1 UCLA met No. 2 Houston in the Astrodome. Billed as “The Game of the Century,” it was the first prime-time national telecast — on something called TVS — of regular-season college hoops. Abdul-Jabbar had suffered a scratched cornea eight days earlier and had missed two games. His performance in Houston was his worst as a collegian. He missed 14 of 18 shots. Three of those were blocked by the Cougars’ Elvin Hayes. The Big E scored 39 points, including the game-winning free throws.
Houston moved atop the rankings. UCLA slipped to No. 2. That was how things stood when they met again in the Final Four semifinals on a Friday night in, of all places, Los Angeles. (The games were staged at the L.A. Sports Arena, USC’s home.) Most figured the Bruins would win the rematch. Nobody figured they’d win the way they did.
The final score was 101-69. UCLA led by 22 at the half, by 44 before gearing down. (The Bruins did have a title game to play the next night. They beat North Carolina 78-55.) Every starter scored at least 14 points; none had more than 19. Abdul-Jabbar took 18 rebounds; Allen made 12 assists. The star, however, was Shackelford, the left-hander known for his corner jump shots. He scored 17 points and helped limit Hayes to 10. Jerry Norman, a UCLA assistant, had persuaded John Wooden to deploy a diamond-and-one against Hayes, Shackelford being the one.
Let’s not mince words. This was the greatest performance in the history of college basketball. This was the finest two hours of the finest team ever — Indiana fans will bristle at this, but no matter — as led by the finest collegiate player ever and the best coach ever. Yes, that’s as gushing a sentence as has been written in the history of humankind. It’s also the truth.
Wooden’s UCLA had won two titles before Abdul-Jabbar. It would win five more after him. I could have subbed out this Final Four for the 1973 edition, which saw Bill Walton — the second-best collegian ever — make 21 of 22 shots in scoring 44 points in the final against Memphis. But if you’re looking for the absolute apex of the almighty Bruins, the obliteration of Houston was it. I watched it live on a black-and-white TV. Fifty years later, I watched it again on YouTube. It was still breathtaking.
No. 10: 1979
No. 9: 1991
No. 8: 1968