The incredible 1968 battle between UCLA and Houston.
“The crowd was unreal,” recalls UCLA forward Lynn Shackleford. “It seemed like the whole state of Texas was in there cheering for them.”
“Elvin was on an elevated plane most of his career here,” says Lewis. “But that game he was just tremendously pumped up, even by his standards.”
Even Wooden still calls it “one of the greatest individual performances I’ve ever seen.”
Meanwhile, Alcindor suffered through by far the worst game of his collegiate career, making only four of 18 shots and finishing with 15 inconsequential points. To be fair, it was uncertain until the day before whether or not he would play at all, due to a scratched cornea which had hospitalized him the previous week and caused double vision.
“His doctors said that he was still suffering from vertigo, double vision,” recalls Wooden. “I told him he didn’t have to play, but he wanted to go out there.”
Remarkably, Alcindor played all 40 minutes, as did his teammates Mike Warren, Lucius Allen and Shackleford, as well as Houston’s Hayes, Chaney and Ken Spain.
“I think his eye was better for the game,’” says Shackleford. “But his conditioning was definitely off. He had his eye scratched the previous Friday night at Cal, did not play the next day at Stanford or several days later at Oregon and was in the hospital for four days, ordered to lie still. Then he’s thrown out there in a blistering first half of a high-tension, fast-paced game, which wore him out. He was basically worthless in the second half. He was very slow getting up and down the court, like he was in the last year of his pro career—and was definitely not in college. It was the only time I can think of where we would have been better off with him on the bench.”
It may not have mattered who was on the court against Hayes on this night. UCLA started the game guarding the Big E man to man with 6-6 Edgar Lacey, but Hayes threw down 16 points in the first 10 and a half minutes. Wooden then went to the 6-7 Mike Lynn, who promptly got into foul trouble and was replaced by 6-7 Jim Nielsen.
Houston, meanwhile, was playing a swarming 1-3-1 zone defense, with Hayes and Spain cutting off the passing lanes, preventing Shackleford, Warren and Allen from getting the ball in the corner or top of the key, from which they liked to rain down deadly jumpers. Spain, meanwhile, was pounding Alcindor every chance he got.
“Spain was 6-9, 255, a big, strong, tough kid,” recalls Lewis. “We were playing a 1- 3-1 zone all night, but I had him come and match up with Alcindor. I was protecting Elvin and I also figured that Spain was extremely physical, and putting a body on Lew was the way to slow him down.
“But the real key to us winning was breaking their press, which killed many a team. We managed to pass out of trouble, rather than into it, and that led to a lot of easy shots, which we needed. I didn’t have anyone on that team who could shoot except for Hayes. In fact, they had outlawed the dunk that year, and it really hurt us. I was the dunkinest coach in America—we were jamming many years before we had Phi Slamma Jamma. We always worked on it in practice, and once they outlawed it we really had to change our game.”
Wooden agrees that the banning of the jam—though generally considered an attempt to slow down Alcindor—had a much greater effect on Houston. “I never approved of the slam, and Lew didn’t do it much,” Wooden recalls. “Houston slammed at every opportunity in the years before ’68.”
While his teammates may have been hampered by actually having to shoot the ball, it was certainly no detriment to the Big E, possessor of one the all-time sweetest turnaround J’s. His 29 first-half points pushed the Cougars ahead and kept them there, and they led by as many as nine on five occasions. But a rally in the last two minutes allowed the Bruins to close the lead to 46-43 at halftime. Then, with the lead back at five, Hayes drew his fourth foul with 12:18 to play. Though they seemed on the verge of folding when Allen and Warren hit shots to tie the game at 54, the Cougars kept their poise.
Spain’s rebound putback and Hayes’ foul shot gave Houston a 63-57 lead with 4:58 to play, but teams don’t go 88-2 (as UCLA did from ’66-69) by slipping quietly into the night. Alcindor scored on a reverse layup, and 11 seconds later Allen stole the ball and scored to cut it to two. Hayes and Nielsen then traded shots before Warren and Alcindor each hit single free throws to knot the score at 65 with 3:02 to go.
As the tension mounted, Houston forward Theodis Lee found Hayes open on the baseline and hit him with a beautiful pass. The Big E connected, and after UCLA failed to score, Chaney, who finished with 11 points and six rebounds, drained an 18-foot jumper for a 69-65 lead with 1:57 to go. Allen drove the baseline for a layup and was fouled, but missed the free throw. After Spain missed the front end of a one on one, Allen sank two free throws to tie the game at 69 with 44 seconds left. The Cougars worked the ball inside to Hayes, who was fouled by an otherwise helpless Nielsen.
Never a great free throw shooter, Hayes stepped to the line with 28 seconds left and calmly hit both shots. UCLA brought the ball downcourt and worked the clock down before making an uncharacteristic mistake, with Warren cutting to the hoop and missing a pass thrown behind him, the ball going off his fingertips out of bounds. Houston took over with 12 seconds left and inbounded the ball to Hayes, who dribbled out the clock. “I didn’t feel confident we were going to win until that last inbounds play,” Lewis says. “I told Elvin to dribble the ball upcourt and everyone else break for midcourt and look for the pass. I knew that once we got it over midcourt, we’d be fine. Elvin did a great job of dribbling, just like he did everything else all night.”
When the game ended, seemingly the entire crowd stormed the court, chanting “E! E! E!” and “We’re Number One!” And so they were, at least for a few months. The teams would meet again in the Final Four—on the same court, now trucked back to its home in Los Angeles. This time, a fired-up UCLA team easily won, gaining vindication and yet another championship appearance. But 31 years later that’s not the game people remember. Or the one still known as “the game of the century” as the year 2000 looms.