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Two Close Calls, but I Missed Out on a Final Four

March 31st, 2017 · No Comments · Basketball, The Sun, UCLA

We return to the Wayback Machine of NCAA basketball today, recalling two close calls between my journalism self and the Final Four.

It is the one annual sports event I regret never covering in my 40 years in print journalism.

To be sure, there were other big events staged annually that I never covered. The U.S. Open in golf and tennis. The British Open. But I didn’t care about those particularly, then or now.

The Final Four was different, and I came close twice — four decades ago, in my two seasons of covering Division I college basketball.

In both 1978 and 1979, I (and a SoCal team) fell one game short of reaching the Final Four. I don’t know for a fact that I would have traveled to St. Louis (1978) or Salt Lake City (1979) … but if I was covering the Western Regional finals in each of those seasons, and a team we cared about advanced to the Final Four the odds are strong that, yes, I would have gotten that assignment.


Let’s review the close calls UCLA and Cal State Fullerton (!) — and I — had in those two years.

In 1978, I had been covering the Bruins in their first year under coach Gary Cunningham, and they had a very nice team, led by juniors David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton and Brad Holland.

They won the Pac-8 championship and qualified for the eight-team Western Regional in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I was there mostly for the Bruins, but I also paid attention to Cal State Fullerton, which was led by a San Bernardino native named Greg Bunch, a 6-foot-6 forward out of that city’s Pacific High School.

Day 1, UCLA beat Kansas 83-76 and tourney newbies Fullerton shocked hosts New Mexico 90-85.

In the regional semis, second-ranked UCLA was knocked out 74-70 by Arkansas, a mild upset, and ended the season 25-3 but without the championship Bruins fans thought was upcoming after two previous seasons without one.

Meanwhile, unranked Fullerton stunned 11th-ranked University of San Francisco 75-72, rallying from 15 points down, with Greg Bunch, a hometown kid for the San Bernardino Sun, scoring 24 with 12 rebounds, knocking out a team led by future NBA center Bill Cartwright.

It was mind boggling; a team most of the country would never have heard of … which was playing in Division II only four years before, was in the final eight of the tournament.

The victory over San Francisco produced a Fullerton-Arkansas regional final, and again Fullerton fell behind — 15 points at halftime. Fullerton coach Bobby Dye ordered up a full-court press in the second half, and the Titans came charging back as they forced 15 turnovers, and took the lead at 58-57 with 1:43 to play.

Cal State Fullerton … “Final Four team! See you in St. Louie, Louie!”

But Arkansas, which was led by a three-guard lineup that included future NBA standout Sidney Moncrief, regained the lead and ran down the clock to 14 seconds before missing the front end of a 1-and-1. Fullerton rebounded. Kevin Anderson (a Verbum Dei High School teammate of Greenwood and Hamilton) took it to the basket at the other end but lost the ball. Fullerton fans still think Anderson was fouled; it went as a turnover.

Arguably, Fullerton would have been the ultimate Final Four Cinderella, in its first tournament appearance, having tied for third in the lightly regarded Pacific Coast Athletic Association with victories over the 11th-ranked and fifth-ranked teams ahead of a game with top-ranked Kentucky.

It was that close.

Said Dye: “If I coached 100 years I could never be more proud of a group of guys.”

That was close call No. 1.

In 1979, UCLA won the Pac-10 (newly expanded) and received a first-round bye in the expanded (40 teams) tournament.

The Bruins defeated Pepperdine 76-71 in Los Angeles, then moved on to Provo, Utah, home of BYU, and the Sweet Sixteen.

The Bruins handled San Francisco 99-81 to move within one victory of the Final Four.

Again, they did not get over the hump, losing 95-91 to DePaul in a game that was curious on a couple of fronts.

First, was the halftime faux pas made by … wait for it … the UCLA band.

Kelly James, the UCLA band director, ordered the bandsmen to strike up the fight song, as the Bruins came out of the locker room, a few minutes before the second half began. The band played despite the fact that a BYU student group known as the International Folk Dancers was still performing on the court to piped-in music.

As I wrote, back on March 17, 1979: “The dancers faltered and stopped in mid-step as the UCLA band blared away. Gradually, the UCLA band itself was drowned out by 13,000 enraged fans who were seeing their own elite dancing group humiliated by the visitors from Westwood …

“Understandably, anything wearing blue and gold was less than popular from that point on. UCLA might as have burned the Book of Mormon at midcourt.

“The Bruins were booed lustily at the onset of the second half and DePaul was given an ovation the likes of which hasn’t been heard anywhere but their home court in Chicago.”

The Utah crowd, without a dog in the fight, had been passive and quiet in the first half, but became enthusiastic DePaul supporters in the second half.

UCLA’s players said the sudden partisanship of the UCLA band-inspired crowd did not effect them, but DePaul players said they enjoyed the support, and one of their stars came up with a great quote I have never forgotten because it was so out of left field but also summed up what had happened.

“I thought the roof had opened up at half and some blimps came in and dropped in a whole new crowd of people,” said guard Gary Garland.

UCLA trailed 51-34 at halftime but staged a determined rally in the second half, so maybe the band’s diplomatic stink bomb really did not bother them.

The team could not blame the band for crucial confusion in the final minute. (Which may have loomed large in Cunningham’s resignation, soon after; he was replaced by Larry Brown.)

Two free throws by Brad Holland with 39 seconds to play cut the deficit to 93-91 and, in an era pre-dating the shot clock, the Bruins had decided to give a foul and hope DePaul missed at the line. DePaul had a 43-percent free-thrower on the floor, and another who shot 60 percent. Prime fouling targets, that is.

However, UCLA never gave a foul. DePaul was allowed to run off 29 seconds before Garland saw an opening and went in for the clinching layup with 10 seconds to play.

After the game, confusion and blame-shifting were the all the rage.

Said Cunningham: “We fought and scrapped and clawed our way back in the second half and came close at the end. I thought we could have tied the score if we’d gotten the steal or a foul.”

The players made clear “someone” was supposed to give a foul.

Said Greenwood: “In the last 30 second the guy who was supposed to foul for us couldn’t get to the DePaul guy he was supposed to foul.”

That UCLA person presumably was Kiki Vandeweghe or Marvin Thomas; the three seniors each had four fouls.

Said Holland: “I can’t really explain what happened. We wanted to foul at the end. We just didn’t get the job done. … Somebody just blew it.”

And there went those Bruins’ chance of meeting Indiana State and Larry Bird in the Final Four. Maybe they were doomed, anyway, since all the years that have followed made it seem that Indiana State and Bird were fated to meet Michigan State and Magic Johnson for the 1979 NCAA title and go on to lead the NBA’s renaissance.

At any rate, that would have been a hell of a Final Four to see. Alas.



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