To put it lightly, the Bruins have a championship pedigree. Lew Alcindor was nearly perfect in championship games, posting a healthy statistical average of 30.3 points and 18 rebounds per game. Bill Walton was even better on college basketball's biggest stage, averaging 34 and 16 for Coach Wooden. Wooden, himself, lived up to his Wizard of Westwood nickname, posting an unblemished 10-0 record in national title games. Many of the title bouts weren't even particularly close, including four victories by 15 or more points. It is this nucleus of Alcindor-Walton-Wooden that explains why UCLA enters the Legendary Madness final as a slight favorite.
Despite Hasheem Thabeet and Emeka Okafor's play thus far in the tournament, no frontcourt has been able to slow down the Bruin bigs during UCLA's run. Houston's Elvin Hayes and Akeem Olajuwon were victimized in the opening round by a stunning 24-14-5 performance from Alcindor. Next up was a towering trio of Hoyas. Ewing, Mourning, and Mutombo fared slightly better against Walton and Alcindor, but Wooden's enforcers still finished with 27 points, 24 rebounds, and six blocks. Even the Kiddy Cats of Kentucky (Davis, Cousins, Towns) were unable to keep the Hall of Famers off the glass. UCLA would outscore the Wildcats 39-21 in the paint during the Bruins' six-point triumph.
All of this is to say, UConn understands the tall task, both literal and figurative, in front of them. But if we know Jim Calhoun and his staff, he won't choose to fight fire with fire. Remember, he has two of the best guards in the entire tournament and they've taken turns shooting the lights out from the field. First, it was Ray Allen's 34-point explosion against Maryland. Then Kemba Walker responded with a 33-point clinic of his own against Indiana. Allen started slowly in the Huskies' Final Four showdown with LSU, but closed hard down the stretch including his game-winning three-pointer. If either Kemba or Allen summons a 30-plus point performance against the Bruins, one has to believe that UConn will be in a tight battle down the stretch.
A final tidbit that has some leaning towards an upset in our final game is the fact that Jim Calhoun is the only coach in the field who has personally coached every single player on his roster. That kind of chemistry has served the Huskies well, particularly in contrast with the growing disconnect between Russell Westbrook and Coach Wooden. Just an extra storyline to follow before the opening tip of the Legendary Madness Championship Game.
The Bruins have made a habit of getting off to slow starts in Legendary Madness. They spotted Houston a nine-point lead in the opening round before using their frontcourt to grind the Cougars to dust. In the Elite Eight, Allen Iverson pulled out all the stops in the opening minutes to give Hoya-backers some hope. But just like their game with Houston, the Bruins shook off the cobwebs after the first TV timeout and took it to John Thompson's squad.
This explains why Coach Wooden didn't seem overly concerned when the Huskies raced out to a 10-2 lead in the first two and half minutes on Wednesday night. Kemba Walker opened the action with an NBA-range three-pointer and followed that up with an electric no-look pass to Donyell Marshall for an old-fashioned three-point play. Walker has dominated for stretches in this tournament, and it appeared from the onset that he was hellbent on pushing UConn over the top.
Just as Walker was heating up, Russell Westbrook was bottoming out. The mercurial superstar has butted heads with Wooden throughout the Bruins' run. Entering the game Russ' assist-to-turnover ratio was 1.44:1, not a miserable number but certainly one that put him on a short leash. Wooden's aversion to turnovers has been a hot topic of discussion, even before Westbrook's second errant pass of the night clipped a spectator in the front row. Before the event staff had cleaned up the contents of the souvenir cup that spilled all over the Alamodome floor, Westbrook's night was done. This opened the door for an unlikely hero.
Reggie Miller, coming off of a 0-for-3 night against Kentucky in the Final Four, wasn't expecting major minutes against UConn. "To be honest, all you can do is prepare like you're going to be the go-to guy, but I wasn't really sure how many minutes I'd get in this one," said Miller after the game. Miller had averaged just over 20 minutes per game before logging 32 against the Huskies. Of his 32 minutes, none were more important than the first. Down 24-19 with 9:52 remaining in the first half, the rail-thin Miller checked into the game and came out guns blazing.
Bill Walton hit Miller with a skip pass on his first possession, and the wily sharpshooter buried the corner three. Just like his vintage wristbands, Miller doubled up on the next possession, stroking home a 30-footer over the outstretched arms of Ray Allen. Just like that, the Huskies lead had evaporated and UCLA had wrestled back control of the game.
Interestingly, for a game that featured a glut of consensus All-Americans, it would be the benches that did the majority of the offensive damage. For every Miller dagger three, Rudy Gay seemingly had an answer for UConn. After scoring just eight points in three games, the former Big East Rookie of the Year was strikingly aggressive and confident with the ball. Gay pumped in 10 points and snagged eight rebounds (2 offensive) during his 23 minutes of game action. With the game tied 38-38 in the waning moments of the first half, Gay broke the Bruins' three-quarter court press and found Kemba Walker streaking to the hoop. The savvy playmaker from the Bronx thought better of a reverse layup in the shadow of Alcindor and found a wide-open Ben Gordon in the corner for a first-half buzzer-beating three. The Huskies led 41-38, and Coach Calhoun was more than happy to talk to Allie LaForce courtside. With the Huskies' band belting out the fight song, it appeared the Hall of Fame coach was having the time of his life. "This is why you want to be a part of things like this, to see the best players, showing their heart and toughness on the biggest stage," said Calhoun through an oversized grin. He headed into the tunnel before LaForce could fire off a single question.
The halftime stats revealed that the Bruins were lucky to be trailing by three points, given the shooting struggles currently being endured by Gail Goodrich and Kevin Love. The second half formula, while never expressly stated by any member of the UCLA team, was plain as day: Feed Alcindor. After just five shot attempts in the first 20 minutes, the second half would be a clinic in post play. The sport's greatest player put on a display of dunks, hook shots and fancy footwork in the post that helped the Bruins open up a five-point lead midway through the second half. But it would be his ferocity on the defensive end that would quell any comeback attempt from UConn. Alcindor had seven blocks on the night, five in the second half, and aside from the continued greatness of Kemba Walker, UConn couldn't sustain any halfcourt offense. Donyell Marshall and Emeka Okafor both fouled out before the final TV timeout and Hasheem Thabeet ended the game with more turnovers than points.
In the end, like any great dynasty, UCLA was able to wear down its opponent. If the game had been 25 minutes and not 40, the Huskies appeared to have enough in the tank to dethrone the Bruins. Unfortunately, despite another 30-plus point explosion from the heart and soul of the program, Kemba Walker, the Huskies didn't have enough to overcome the top-seed in Legendary Madness.
As the final horn sounded and the confetti reached the hardwood, Calhoun and Wooden shook hands at the scorer's table and went their separate ways. "It's been a fantastic ride for our team and our fans, we just came up a little bit short," said a clearly spent Emeka Okafor in the tunnel. Alcindor, winner of the coveted MOP of the Final Four, welcomed Reggie Miller up to the dais after the game. "Without his work on the perimeter, I'm not sure we're here," said Alcindor. "It's not enough to be great in the paint, you need to stretch teams defensively, and Reggie was our secret weapon this whole time," said a relaxed Wooden postgame.
While chalk prevailed in our series, Legendary Madness produced a handful of upsets and eye-popping stat lines. Indiana upset Kansas on a buzzer beater from Steve Alford, Allen Iverson dropped 40 in a losing effort to UCLA, and LSU upended Michael Jordan's Tar Heel team to reach the Final Four. For a recap of the entire series, click here!