Idaho State upsets UCLA in NCAA Tourney (1977)

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Idaho State upsets UCLA in NCAA Tourney (1977)

Postby rlee » Sun Dec 16, 2007 12:46 am

Etched in time
By Kellis Robinett
IdahoStateJournal.com

Before parity hit the world of college basketball and teams like Valparaiso, Hampton and George Mason became darlings of the NCAA tournament with their unbelievable early round victories, major upsets were hard to come by.
For a long time, the NCAA tournament was only made up of 32 teams, and talent was not evenly spread across the country like it is today. Giants like UCLA - winners of 10 national championships in a 12-year span during the '60s and '70s - hoarded all the big-time prospects and kicked sand in the face of every underdog it met come March.

To think a fellow power like North Carolina could knock off the Bruins in that era was far fetched. And the notion that a mid-major team could beat them was almost enough to get you thrown in the loony bin.

But the upsets had to start at some point, and as far as Pocatello residents are concerned, Idaho State will always be the team that got the carnage going.

In 1977, a little more than 30 years before Idaho State again takes on UCLA at Pauley Pavilion at 6 p.m. today, the Bengals stunned the Bruins 76-75 in the Sweet Sixteen at BYU's Marriott Center and sent a shockwave through the sporting world.
UCLA went down to an unheralded and unranked Idaho State team, and it was considered by some at the time to be the biggest upset college basketball had ever seen.

Not long after, other relative nobodies from across the country started making names for themselves with massive upsets that became more and more believable, but back then a surprise victory of that magnitude was unheard of.
Scott Goold, then a sophomore guard who started in that game for Idaho State, said there's still no easy way to explain just how big it was.

''You can't even put it into words unless you know just how big UCLA seemed to us,'' he said from his Albuquerque home this week. ''Nobody compares to them today. UCLA was a god back then. We were the smallest school on the planet. You'd tell people I go to Idaho State and they'd say 'Oh yeah, Iowa.' Us beating them would be like Mexico defeating the United States in nuclear war today. It was that unbelievable.''
Yes, no one gave Idaho State a chance against UCLA.

The Bruins entered the game as a 14-point favorite, and Idaho State's now late coach Jim Killingsworth told the Journal at the time that he expected to be a 40-point underdog.
UCLA was coming off trips to 10 consecutive Final Fours and sported college basketball's player of the year in Marques Johnson. The Bruins were big inside, they were quick on the outside and they were experienced everywhere.

From the outside looking in, about the only thing Idaho State had going for it was that John Wooden was retired and Gene Bartow had replaced him as the Bruins' coach.
But the Bengals themselves thought differently.

They entered the game with a 24-4 record and believed they were battle tested even if the national media didn't believe in them. After a 3-3 start to the season, Idaho State ripped off 21 wins in 22 games and won in some tough gyms along the way.
''We beat Indiana State, we beat Fresno State, we won at Montana and at Weber State. ... There were some really good wins in there,'' said Jeff Cook, a former ISU power forward who started for the 1977 team. ''It wasn't like we were cocky, but we knew we had a good team. It was everybody else who didn't.''

Still, Killingsworth was far too good a strategist and motivator to tell his team it could beat UCLA during the week of practices leading up to the game.

He actually never even brought up the Bruins in game preparation. Instead, he told his players to plan as if they were going up against Boise State, a fellow Big Sky team that played a similar system to UCLA.

''He didn't talk about UCLA once that I remember,'' Goold said. ''We talked about how we played Boise and spent the whole week talking about how we were going to beat Boise. It was smart. He didn't want us to get caught up in the media hype.''

He also didn't want the media to get caught up in the Bengals' game plan.

All season, Idaho State played a strict man-to-man defense. With 7-footer Steve Hayes and Jeff Cook inside, and Greg Griffin, Ed Thompson and Goold on the perimeter, that defense matched up well against practically everyone.

But in the Big Sky tournament championship game, the Bengals came out in a 1-2-2 zone, completely surprising Weber State in a 61-55 win. Then, against Long Beach State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, they went with it again and won 83-72.

In the days leading up to the UCLA game, the Bengals continued to practice that zone and fully planned on using it a third-straight time. But to throw off the Bruins, Killingsworth told the national media the day before the game that there was no way he'd go zone again.

''We'll go man-to-man, because the height factor is more even against UCLA than other teams,'' he said. ''Plus, the surprise factor is gone.''

Oh, that crafty Killingsworth.

When it was time to play the game, everyone on Idaho State's roster still admits they were nervous and UCLA players appeared overconfident.

''For a lack of a better word, they were real cocky,'' said then senior guard Thompson. ''They looked at us all funny. Here we are, the Idaho State Bengals. I'm not sure what seed we were, (there weren't seeds back then) but we were quite a ways down there. They were like, how are these guys gonna play with us. Idaho who?''

Added then freshman guard Paul Wilson: ''They thought they were going to kill us without any effort at all.''

But those attitudes quickly changed.

Idaho State played surprisingly loose in the early moments, and even though it trailed for most of the first half, players learned they could play with UCLA.

Goold still remembers the exact moment he stopped gazing at the Bruins' baby blue and yellow uniforms as if they were holy and started playing with intensity.

''One of the very first plays of the game, I took a charge on this guy, and I can't tell you what cloud I was on, but it was higher than Cloud 9,'' he said. ''It was probably cloud 900. You couldn't be more pumped up in your life. But at that moment, the adrenaline started to wear off, and it turned into a real game.''

The game went back and forth in the first half. UCLA didn't have much trouble with Idaho State's zone, but the Bengals never let the Bruins get too far ahead.

As the clock ticked away toward halftime, and Idaho State was still challenging UCLA on every possession, all of a sudden the Provo, Utah, crowd started to get behind the Bengals.

Realizing the mighty Bruins might actually be in for a game, the arena turned into what some players called a ''circus environment, with BYU fans treating us like the home team.''

''It felt like a home game,'' Wilson said. ''Only louder and better.''

The Bengals couldn't use that support to take the lead by halftime, but UCLA only led 38-32 at the break. And Idaho State was a confident team.

''At halftime, we started to believe we could actually win this game,'' Goold said. ''We realized we were for real, and we were a great team. There was no more thought of us playing a giant. We were suddenly thinking we were the team that deserved to win.''

Now mentally strong, Idaho State needed to figure out a way to slow down UCLA's offense. The Bengals were doing fine offensively, but Johnson tore them apart in the first half with 19 points.

The zone defense Killingsworth went to so much trouble to hide wasn't working, and it needed a slight adjustment to shut down the Bruins. But the Bengals were ready to listen, and Killingsworth once again came up with the perfect plan.

With a little more sliding, and some quicker rotations, he devised a way to neutralize Johnson, and in the second half he was held to just two points.

''It wasn't quite a box-and-one we were using, but we shut their guard down,'' Hayes said. ''We switched up our defense and kept them down on the perimeter.''

So with the Bruins' best player now in check, it was time for Idaho State to make its move.

Coming right out of halftime, Idaho State went on a quick run to take the lead and sent a message to everyone that it was ready for a game. From then on, there were 19 lead changes and five ties.

More than anywhere, the Bengals made their push inside. Hayes, a senior center who was one of the best centers in the country that year, used a mixture of sky hooks and free throws to score 27 points and grab 12 rebounds.

Realizing Hayes was destroying them, the Bruins ganged up on him but then Thompson started scoring on his way to 14 points and Griffin, a senior guard, took off on his way to 12. All of a sudden, Idaho State was a threat to score inside and out.

''There wasn't really one person you could key on on that team,'' Cook said. ''If you played zone someone would kill you. It was pick your poison. Collapse on Steve or try to shut everyone else down.''

With each shot Idaho State made, the Bengals became more and more confident. At one point, Cook remembers thinking, ''there is no way we can lose this game.''

With 2:02 left on the clock, it didn't look like there was any way Idaho State could blow it. The Bengals were up by eight points, the largest lead of the game, and the crowd had become absolutely electric behind them.

Everyone wanted to see this upset.

But this was UCLA, remember. And the Bruins had one last push left in them.

The one thing Thompson knew without a doubt about UCLA was that it featured one of the best full-court presses in the game. He didn't particularly ever want to see it up close, but with an eight-point lead and time running out, it was about to come.

But no amount of preparation could get the Bengals ready. UCLA was too fast and too skilled. If the Bruins wanted a steal, well, they were probably going to get it.

And as soon as Idaho State went up by eight points, the Bruins forced a steal and got in the Bengals' heads.

''Oh man, the great UCLA press,'' Thompson said. ''They threw the press on us, and it got ugly real fast. We could hardly see our own colors out there. It was a great press. You see bodies everywhere. They knew how to play it.''

But in that carnage, Idaho State found a way to match UCLA's steals with cheap buckets on the other end and clung to a 72-69 lead with 51 seconds to play.

''We were playing for our lives,'' Goold said.

Looking for any answer to the Bruins' swarming defense, Killingsworth turned to a freshman named Ernie Wheeler who didn't play all that much in the regular season. He was the team's best ball-handler, and Killingsworth told him to just hang onto the ball when he got it.

But he did much more than that.

As soon as UCLA saw Idaho State put an unknown freshman in the game, the Bruins fouled him at every opportunity.

Turned out that was a big mistake.

''They were fouling the wrong guy,'' Cook said. ''They were fouling him because he was a freshman, but he was killing them. He was hitting his shots no problem.''

Wheeler made back-to-back clutch free throws to put Idaho State up 74-69, and after two quick UCLA buckets cut it to 74-73, he drained two more to clinch the game.

As former Journal writer George Greer eloquently wrote at the time, Wheeler took charge from the free-throw line ''showing all the nerves of a mummy who had been encased in cloth for 2,000 years.''

But it actually only took Wheeler a week to prepare for that moment. Somehow, he figured he needed to practice his free throws for a week leading up to the game just in case he was called upon.

''I'm a freshman, and in situations like that they like to foul freshmen,'' Wheeler told the Journal at the time. ''Because they are the most inexperienced.''

Experience meant nothing this time. Five starters who each went on to pro careers gave Idaho State a big lead, and a freshman made sure the Bengals kept it.

After the game, a disappointed Bartow told the national media the Bruins lost to a better team.

''The best team won tonight,'' he said. ''If we played 10 times, I don't know how many we would win.''

They wouldn't have to play again. The party was on.

The biggest victory in Idaho State history ended with a ball being hurled high into the air and fans from all sides of the Marriott Center running onto the court to congratulate the Bengals.

Cook remembers being hammered in the chest by a friend's telephoto lens camera. Goold remembers being mobbed by people he'd never met. Others were so excited they don't remember any specifics at all.

But most every former player agrees it was the wildest celebration they've ever been a part of.

''I was just mobbed,'' Goold said. ''We were all jumping on each other, and fans were coming out of the stands to jump on us. Someone could have taken all your clothes and you never would have known. It was like a dream. Everything was moving slow. You were just so overwhelmed. The whole time you were thinking, 'Could it be? Could it be!'''

Oh, it could be. Idaho State had defeated UCLA, and all of a sudden everyone knew who the Bengals were.

Thompson snickered a bit when he saw UCLA players leave the floor in tears, and Hayes couldn't believe the national media waiting to talk to him at the following day's practice as they prepared to take on UNLV in the Elite Eight.

''It was like winning the national championship,'' Hayes said.

And even after UNLV ended Idaho State's magical run two days later with a 107-90 victory, the people of Pocatello showered the Bengals with praise.

Mobs of hometown fans waited for them at the airport on their return from Provo, and they took part in a parade not long after.

All those festivities for a team that just got eliminated from the NCAA tournament.

But the victory over UCLA was that huge.

The Bengals have returned to the NCAA tournament only once since then, and lost that game to UNLV as well.

No matter what happened in the following 30 years, though, nothing could ever take away from what Idaho State did in 1977. It amazed everyone and knocked off a college basketball giant with they type of upset that no one thought possible.

''For everyone involved, it's something you can always be proud of,'' Goold said. ''We were playing a bunch of All-Americans who didn't want to lose to potato farmers. But we won. None of us will ever forget that game.''
By Kellis Robinett
rlee
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