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Recalling top college hoop games


: A series by Times News writer Rich Strack will recall his favorite moments in sports history. Throughout the upcoming weeks, Strack will offer his thoughts about different sports. Today’s topic is college basketball)

By Rich Strack


In this difficult time of a health crisis, the matter of sports competition that brings so much recreational joy to millions of Americans has been rightfully postponed.

Every level from the professional and college ranks down to high school spring sports will have empty stadiums, ball fields, and running tracks for the foreseeable future.

If you’re a sports fan like me, the games may not be live for a while, but from many years of devotion to athletic competition, some of the greatest events continue to play on in my memory rewind.

So sit back and let me distract you from public concerns for just a moment with Part Three of a series of the greatest games and events that will remain forever in my personal Hall of Fame.

Today, I choose three college basketball games as my picks for best of the best.

UCLA vs Houston

1968 regular season

Billed as the Game of the Century, the No. 1 ranked UCLA Bruins (13-0) played the No. 2 ranked Houston Cougars (14-0) on Jan. 20.

The event was the first nationally televised college basketball game and was held in the Houston Astrodome in front of 52,694 fans, the largest number of spectators to ever see a college basketball game.

UCLA, coached by John Wooden - the legendary Wizard of Westwood - came in with a 47-game winning streak.

The game matched two All Americans - UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Houston’s Elvin Hayes. Alcindor played with a scratched cornea, which most likely contributed to his 4-for-18 shooting from the floor. The 6-9 Hayes was spectacular for the Cougars. He scored 39 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. Known as the “Big E,” he even blocked three shots taken by the 7-2 Alcindor.

The first half closed with the Cougars up by three points. In the second half, the game remained close despite Alcindor’s ineffectiveness.

With two minutes remaining in the game, the score was tied at 69-69 after the Lucius Allen, who led the Bruins with 25 points, made a pair of free throws.

Hayes then took a shot and was fouled. The Big E, playing with four fouls, hit both shots from the line. The Bruins still had time to score, but a shot attempt by Allen would not drop. On its last possession, UCLA turned the ball over and the Cougars hung on for a 71-69 victory.

In the NCAA tournament semifinals, the two teams met again. This time, UCLA crushed the 101-69 on the way to their second of seven straight titles.

Villanova vs Georgetown

1985 (NCAA Championship)

Villanova was the No. 8 seed in the Southeast Regional and won its first three games of the tournament by a combined 11 points before beating North Carolina, 56-44, in the Regional Final.

No.1 overall seed Georgetown (35-2) was led by Patrick Ewing. The Hoyas won their first three games in the East Regional by a combined 54 points before knocking off Georgia Tech, 60-54, to make it to the Final Four.

The Wildcats and the Hoyas won their semis, setting a meeting in the title game. Georgetown, the defending National Champions, were heavy favorites against the Wildcats who were playing in their first title game.

Trailing 28-27 with 1:58 left in the first half, Villanova took possession off a Georgetown miss and went into a four-corners delay. The game was played one year before the shot clock was instituted. Georgetown stayed in a passive 1-3-1 zone, allowing Villanova to hold the ball. Harold Pressley scored over Ewing with four seconds left in the half to give Villanova a 29-28 lead.

The Wildcats, who shot an astounding NCAA record 79 per cent from the floor for the game, built a 53-48 advantage with six minutes to play on great offensive play by Ed Pickney, but the Hoyas stormed back to score the next six points and take a 54-53 lead.

Georgetown went into a four-corner offense to kill time and to force the Wildcats into a man-to-man defense. The stall lasted less than a minute before but an errant pass gave the ball back to the Wildcats. A basket by sixth man, Harold Jensen put Villanova ahead for good and several key free throws he made later ended up giving the Wildcats and coach Rollie Massimino a 66-64 victory - one of the biggest upsets in NCAA title game history.

North Carolina State vs Houston

1983 NCAA Championship

After struggling to a 17-10 regular season record, NC State and coach Jim Valvano needed to win the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament just to get into the NCAA Tournament. It did just that, upsetting powerhouses North Carolina and Virginia along the way.

The Wolfpack then went on to win the West Regional, while the Cougars came out of the Midwest Regional. Both teams won their National semifinal contests, setting up a showdown in the final.

North Carolina State was a heavy underdog against Guy Lewis’s No. 1 seeded Cougars, who were led by All Americans Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler.

The first half of the game favored NC State. Not only did the Wolfpack lead 33–25, but Drexler picked up four first-half fouls.

The Cougars opened the second half with a dominating 17–2 run to seize a seven-point lead, 42–35.

Olajuwon, who had asthma , had to come off the court multiple times in the second half to receive oxygen. The Cougars slowed the pace of the game while he rested, but this helped the Wolfpack reset their offense to keep within striking range.

Tied at 52-52 with 44 seconds remaining, NC State held the ball for a final shot attempt. Houston narrowly missed stealing the ball a couple of times as the clock ticked down. After gathering the ball nearly 30 feet from the basket, Dereck Whittenburg launched a desperation shot with the clock winding down. Olajuwon hesitated in fear of a goaltending call, allowing Lorenzo Charles to catch the ball in front of the basket and dunk it just as the buzzer went off for the 54–52 victory.

One of the memorable images in tournament history is of winning coach Jim Valvano running onto the court in jubilation after the game ended.

Final thoughts

College basketball is arguably the most exciting spectator sport. In each of these games, not only did the underdogs prevail, but they won championships with seconds left to play which added high drama to the excitement.

The coaches in these games were iconic figures in basketball history. Two of them are worthy of further mention. John Wooden coached over 600 victories and won 10 national titles at UCLA, but he was also praised for being a teacher of life to his players and to emphasize to them that life is much bigger than basketball. When interviewed after his team’s loss to Houston, he turned the attention away from the game to a more important issue, the loss of American lives in Vietnam.

Jim Valvano is remembered more for an inspirational speech he gave in 1993 at the ESPY Awards than for coaching his team to an unpredictable championship. While he was terminally ill with cancer, he told listeners to do three things every day... to laugh, to think, and to have your emotions moved to tears. Valvano concluded his famous speech with the line, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

Men like John Wooden and Jim Valvano left lasting impressions that transcend the game of basketball.

FILE - In this April 4, 1983 file photo, North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, center with fist raised, celebrates after his basketball team defeated Houston to win the NCAA championship in Albuquerque, N.M. North Carolina State announced that the arena in Reynolds Coliseum will be named for the former coach. The James. T. Valvano Arena will be dedicated Dec. 5 to the man who guided the Wolfpack to the 1983 national championship. (AP Photo/File)