UCLA head basketball coach Larry Brown, around Janss Steps, March 1980, Photo Credit: Frank Leone (More photos posted with permission in "a little walk down memory lane."]
Since it is the dead time for Bruin sports I thought I would step back in the wayback machine to the first year of the all too short Larry Brown era in Westwood.
The story of the Bruins run to the Final Four in 1980 begins with a painful loss to De Paul at the regional final in 1979. The Bruins had beaten De Paul at the start of the 78-79 season, 108-85 in Pauley after overcoming a 14 point deficit in the first half. At the regional final in Provo, the Bruins tried the same strategy of rallying late, but came up short. 14 uncharacteristic first half turnovers for the Bruins resulted in a 19 point first half lead for the Blue Demons, and this time it was too much for the Bruins to overcome. I was a freshman, and as I watched the Bruins lose 95-91 (at Shakey's in Westwood). I was crushed by the result. If the Bruins had beaten De Paul, they would have played Larry Bird and Indiana State at the Final Four, with the winner to face Magic Johnson and the Spartans.
After the 78-79 season, David Greenwood, Roy Hamilton, and Brad Holland left for the NBA, and Gary Cunningham resigned as the basketball coach. Larry Brown who had just left the Denver Nuggets was hired to replace Cunningham. Brown benefited from a great freshmen class, (Rod Foster, Michael Holton, Darren Daye and Cliff Pruitt) but almost lost Michael Sanders who had not played much as a freshmen, and was concerned that the Coach who recruited him (Larry Famer, at the insistence of Walt Hazzard who first spotted Sanders) might be leaving. Sanders' mother told him he had to stay even if he remained on the bench for four years, so he (and Farmer) stayed.
The Bruins started the year ranked #8, but early in the 79-80 season, the Bruins lost, first at #4 Notre Dame 77-74, and then 99-94 to De Paul in Pauley. Following that second consecutive loss, Sports Illustrated on December 24 issued its famous article proclaiming "the Bruins are in Ruins" which turned out to be a "Sports Illustrated jinx in reverse" as the season wore on. However, before things got better, subsequent losses at Oregon State and USC knocked the Bruins out of the Top 20 for good, and were followed by losses to a very good ASU team and Notre Dame a second time to leave the team at 8-6. Brown then installed Foster and Holton as the starters at guard over the more experienced Tyren Naulls and Tony Anderson. Mike Sanders, at 6'6" was also made the starting Center over Gig Sims and Darell Allums. The Bruins won 8 out of their final 11 games, but were still no lock to make the tournament.
The Bruins finished fourth in the Pac-10 at 12-6, but benefited from an expansion that year of the NCAA field from 40 to 48 teams. In addition, that was the first year that more than one at large team per conference was allowed to qualify for the tournament. The Bruins (who were unranked going into the tournament for the first time since 1966) made the tournament as an 8 seed in the West which meant a first round game against #9 Old Dominion in Tempe. (Because there were 48 teams in the regionals that year, during the first round the top four seeds in each regional all had byes, and the 5-12 seeds played each other.)
The Bruins had opening game jitters with 23 turnovers against Old Dominion (which was 25-4 going into the game) but the Bruins made 29 of 35 free throws and won 89-74. Kiki Vandeweghe, as usual that season, was the go to guy for the Bruins with 34 points. (I seem to recall someone asking Kiki why as Southern California native he was not more tan. Kiki, who was a notorious gym rat, responded "There isn't any sun in the gym"). The Bruin's victory meant a rematch with DePaul, which was not only was the top seed in the West, but also the nation's # 1 team at 26-1 with only an overtime loss to Notre Dame to mar their perfect season until they met the Bruins a second time.
De Paul was coached by Ray Meyer in his 38th season. He had reached the final Four with De Paul in 1943, and again in 1979, but he was close to retirement, and this was the year he was hoping to win a NCAA title. (He did win the NIT in 1945 with future Laker George Mikan at center). De Paul also featured Sophomore Mark Aguirre (who had 27 points and 17 boards against the Bruins earlier in the season, as well as the father of a future Bruin (freshman Terry Cummings) and also had two very good guards (Skip Dillard and Clyde Bradshaw).
The Bruins had a two point lead at halftime against De Paul, and the game was tight throughout. James Wilkes guarded Aguirre most of the game, although Vandeweghe and Sanders took turns guarding him, holding him to 8 points under his 27 point average. It helped that Aguirre sprained his ankle with a couple of minutes left, although he remained in the game. Mike Sanders scored 15 points for the Bruins, and had 17 rebounds. Rod Foster also chipped in 19 points. With the game tied 67 all, the Bruins hit ten free throws down the stretch to win 77-71. It was perfect symmetry: The Bruins did to De Paul what the Blue Demons had done to the Bruins the year before: an upset in the tourney after losing to them earlier in the regular season.
With the win over De Paul, the Bruins were the only Pac-10 team left in the tourney. Oregon State a 2 seed lost to 10th seed La Mar (coached by Billy Tubbs). Washington State a #5 seed (coached by George Raveling) was upset by 12 seed Penn. ASU, a 5 seed who had swept the Bruins in the regular season, lost to Ohio State 85-75 and the Buckeyes were the Bruins opponent in the third round. The Bruins, with a 6'6" center, had to face an OSU front line that featured Herb Williams (6'10") plus Clark Kellog. OSU also had Kelvin Ransey who was one of the best players in the nation that year, and at the time was the Buckeye's all time leading scorer.
The Bruins started off slowly in Tucson against the Buckeyes, but used the fast break and a 14-3 run late in the first half to lead at the half 35-31. The Bruins padded their lead to 42-33 in the second half, but then Kelvin Ransey scored 13 of the Buckeyes first 17 points in the second half to tie the up the game. Down the stretch the Bruins again put the Buckeyes away with free throws, making 28 out of 35 free throws. Rod Foster hit two free throws with 19 seconds left to put the Bruins up by four, and when Kellog hit a jumper for the Buckeyes, James Wilkes hit two free throws to make the final score 72-68. (If that was not enough, earlier in the day Wilkes had saved a small boy from drowning in a pool at a motel in Tucson.)
In the regional final the Bruins faced 23-8 Clemson, a #6 seed who had done what Oregon State could not, and defeated Lamar. Clemson had 6'10" Larry Nance although their front line was not as imposing as Ohio State. This game was less of a nail biter, as the Bruins surged to an 11 point league at half time, and increased that lead to 18 in the second half, although Clemson cut the final score to and11 point margin, 85-74. Mike Sanders ended up being the West Region's outstanding player and had 22 points to go with 10 rebounds. Kiki Vandeweghe, who had a subpar performance against OSU, bounced back with 22 points of his own. Before and after the game Clemson's coach, Bill Foster marveled at how quick the Bruins were. Larry Brown said in the LA Times that "Those last two minutes were the longest I've ever experienced" and the Bruins were headed to the Final Four for the first time in four years.
In the opener of the final four, the Bruins had to face Purdue led by 7'1" Joe Barry Carroll, in Indianapolis which was only about 75 miles from the Purdue Campus. However, Kiki Vandeweghe scored 24 points many of them scored while driving directly into Purdue's defense. Once again the Bruins did well at the free throw line making 21 of 25 free throws. The Bruins led by 10 in the second half, although Purdue cut the lead to 59-58, before Carroll missed a jumper and fouled Sanders who hit two free throws. Holton made two more foul shots, and Vandeweghe made four straight and the Bruins ultimately won 68-62.
Unfortunately, the Bruins came up short against Darrell Griffith, but even though the Bruins were runners-up, it was a magical run that no one would have expected, and was the reason I will always have a soft spot for Larry Brown. He returned real excitement to Bruin basketball, even if it only lasted for a couple of years.