No defeat — not the Laettner game, not the Final Four losses to Connecticut, not even Wisconsin spoiling the dream of an undefeated national title — was as detrimental to Kentucky’s goal of becoming the school with the most men’s basketball national championships as the 92-85 loss Joe B. Hall and the Wildcats suffered to UCLA and John Wooden in the 1975 NCAA finals.
Reverse the outcome of that one game, and the current NCAA championship ledger would be UCLA 10, Kentucky 9. A 10-9 title deficit would be a whole lot easier to overcome than 11-8.
With Steve Alford set to bring No. 11 UCLA (8-0; 97 points a game) into Rupp Arena for the first time ever Saturday to face John Calipari and No. 1 Kentucky (7-0; 95.6 ppg) in what should be a supersonic hoops throwdown, it is a fitting time to revisit the most important basketball meeting between the two programs with the most national championships.
Never miss a local story.
Hall says a reporter from Los Angeles called him recently “to ask me all about” UK’s haunting 1975 championship loss to UCLA in San Diego. The ex-UK coach, who turned 88 Wednesday, did not need to be prompted to think back to those days in San Diego 41 years ago.
“I think about that game quite a bit,” says Hall.
The day before the championship, Wooden, the iconic Wizard of Westwood, announced that it would be his final game on the UCLA bench.
“I almost fell off my chair,” Hall recalls. “I knew when he announced that that it would have a big impact on how the game was called.”
Kentucky had rolled through the 1975 NCAA tourney, bouncing a quality Marquette team and ending Indiana’s undefeated season along the way, behind a physical style of play that featured burly 6-foot-10 freshman centers Rick Robey and Mike Phillips.
Hall says it is his understanding that the NCAA director of officiating instructed officials Hank Nichols and Bob Wortman “not to let (the finals) be a physical game. They came into the game planning to constrain Kentucky.”
Both Robey (who eventually fouled out) and Phillips (four fouls) were restricted by foul trouble. Against a towering UCLA front line, Kentucky played long stretches with 6-foot-9 Bob Guyette at center.
Yet, through adversity, the Cats had a late chance to seize control. Down 66-56 with some 10 minutes left, UK pulled within 76-75 with around five minutes to play.
The normally mild-mannered Wooden went ballistic.
“He was out on the floor, arguing, haranguing the official,” Hall says. “The referee, Wortman, was saying ‘Please, Mr. Wooden, go back to the bench. Please, Coach, go back to the bench.’ If I had done that, I’d have gotten a technical foul, maybe two. And the whole time (Wooden’s) out there arguing, Kevin Grevey is standing around, getting more nervous about shooting those foul shots.”
Finally, Wooden returned to the bench. A 79-percent foul shooter, Grevey missed both the technical free throw and the front end of the bonus, each rimming in and out. When Kentucky inbounded the ball after the “T,” James Lee was called for an offensive foul.
“That was our chance and we didn’t get anything out of it,” Hall says.
Instead, UCLA outscored Kentucky 16-10 the rest of the way and sent Wooden out with his 10th national title.
Hall says both he and his legendary predecessor as Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp, liked Wooden — who passed away in 2010 at age 99 — personally.
“He and Adolph were close,” Hall says. “I used to sit with them as an assistant at NCAAs, at coaches’ meetings. Wooden would get along with anybody. He was a real gentleman.”
For those who dream of UK passing UCLA in the national title chase, that does not make what happened in the 1975 NCAA finals any easier to take.