30 years later
Matt Lozar | Friday, January 23, 2004
The day before No. 2 Notre Dame hosted No. 1 UCLA, coach Digger Phelps brought ladders onto the floor at the end of practice.At the time, the Bruins were heading into the Athletic Convention Center – as it was known at the time – on an 88-game winning streak and with the last seven national championships under their belt. Phelps had the team go to opposite ends of the court and prepare for something he felt his team – finally ready after four consecutive losses to UCLA by a combined 128 points – would do the next afternoon.He told them to practice cutting the nets down.”I told them, ‘You are going to be able to tell your grandchildren about this,'” Phelps said.
Building the rivalry
Phelps became Notre Dame head coach for the 1971-72 season at the age of 29 and wanted to make the Irish the best in country. He knew what school and what coach he had to use as a model for building the program.He had to follow John Wooden and UCLA.”I said, ‘What is the best program in the country?’ It wasn’t Marquette, Kansas or North Carolina State. It was UCLA,” Phelps said. “UCLA is the Yankees, the pinstripes, Pauley Pavilion is Yankee Stadium. We need to forget everyone else, if we catch up to them, we know we are good.”The passion for defeating UCLA intensified in Phelps’ first game against the Bruins, a 114-56 loss in Los Angeles. That game was the first meeting between the teams since the Irish defeated the Bruins the season before, ending the four-time defending champion’s 48-game non-conference winning streak.The domination by Wooden’s team wasn’t what disturbed Phelps. It was the fact Wooden continued to press with Bill Walton and Henry Bibby despite having a 41-point lead with eight minutes remaining. And with Notre Dame playing UCLA twice a year on national television – a big deal in the early ’70s – the rivalry naturally grew.”When you schedule UCLA home and away, it built a rivalry,” former Notre Dame guard Dwight Clay said. “When you play them that much, you aren’t afraid of them. They knew that when we beat them.”The Irish started to believe they could overcome that UCLA mystique.
A miraculous comeback
In 1973, the Bruins came to South Bend and defeated the Irish 82-63 to set the NCAA record for consecutive wins at 61. Phelps knew his team wasn’t ready to compete with UCLA yet.After a trip to the NIT championship game later this season – at a time when only 25 teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament – the Irish came into next season awaiting the midseason showdown with the Bruins. “UCLA was such a great basketball team,” former Notre Dame center John Shumate said. “You didn’t need to use anything to get you ready to play UCLA. The mere challenge of going against the ‘Wizard of Westwood,’ Walton, Keith Wilkes, Pete Trgovich and Dave Meyers was enough. If you couldn’t get ready for the Irish versus UCLA, you weren’t a basketball player.”The top-ranked Bruins came into the ACC and took the crowd out of it early, building a 17-point lead in the first half. Their streak appeared to be moving toward 89 straight games as the Bruins were up 70-59 with 3:22 remaining.They wouldn’t score again.”We were down by 11 points, and everyone had counted us out coming in much less when we were down 11,” Shumate said. “When coach called a timeout, and I can still see the snarl, the passion in his eyes, the belief and his love for Notre Dame, he pointed to each and every one of us. “He said, ‘If you don’t believe that we can do this, then leave and go to the locker room right now. If you stay here and believe, then we can do this.'”Phelps moved Shumate to the top of the press, and after a lay-up, a steal and another lay-up by Shumate, the lead was down to seven in less than half a minute.After another Notre Dame steal, a lay-up by guard Adrian Dantley made the score 70-65. A travel by UCLA gave the Irish another opportunity, and a jumper by guard Gary Brokaw cut the lead to three.At this time, after Notre Dame had reeled off eight points in less than a minute and a half, Walton looked to the bench at his coach. But Wooden, who never called a timeout in the second half, didn’t want to slow down the momentum.Meyers missed a shot, and Brokaw hit another jumper to cut the lead to one. Walton made a timeout gesture while looking at Wooden, but Wooden refused to acknowledge him and wanted the Bruins to keep playing.A charge by Wilkes gave the Irish a shot to complete their improbable comeback. Not wanting to give the Bruins a chance to regroup, Phelps didn’t call a timeout, and the Irish set up a two-man game for Shumate and the suddenly hot Brokaw. But the Bruins forgot about Clay in the corner. Tommie Curtis drifted off Clay to double-team the streaking Brokaw and left Clay open to make his only shot of the second half.”That was my spot in that gym. We would break down the zone in practice, and Gary would pass [to me] from the top of the circle,” Clay said. “I rotated from corner to corner. I practiced that shot all the time.”The Bruins finally called a timeout after giving up a 12-0 run in less than three minutes. They had a number of close looks before the buzzer sounded but couldn’t convert anything. One of those misses belonged to Walton – only his second missed field goal in the entire game. “The last 29 seconds were just an eye opener for all of us. We were still in awe that we had the lead,” Clay said. “We just had to just play defense and get the rebound. They all had opportunities, All of a sudden, Shumate grabbed the rebound and it was over.”UCLA experienced its first loss since Jan. 23, 1971, a 89-82 win by Notre Dame. And the Irish could do what they practiced Friday.
The place now known as the Joyce Center has seen as many upsets as any other building in the country. The Irish have defeated five top-ranked teams, including giving UCLA its last loss before its 88-game streak and knocking off 29-0 San Francisco in 1977.But that win on Jan. 19, 1974, sticks out over any of Phelps’ accomplishments, including the 1978 trip to the Final Four, in his 20 years as Notre Dame coach.”When you look at that game, we beat all these No. 1 teams, nothing reflects back to that moment,” Phelps said.That shot from his spot in the corner has lived with Clay his entire life and made him a legendary name in Notre Dame sports history.”It stays with me constantly – the two million that saw it on television and one million that were there,” Clay said. “That was my 15 minutes of fame that lasted for 30 years.”Shumate was having doubts about coming back for Sunday’s ceremony because of his health and fighting the potentially bad weather. But when his old coach heard about that, he gave Shumate one last tongue-lashing.”Coach Phelps had gotten wind of me not coming and told me, ‘You get [up] and get back here to enjoy and savor the moment that we were all a part of,” Shumate said. “Now I’m so elated – so appreciative – of whoever put this weekend together, that I can be a part of the tradition of the Fighting Irish one more time.”At halftime Sunday afternoon, the team will get its chance.