LOS ANGELES — The date is burned in Bill Walton’s memory. He spits it out with distaste when asked what he recalls most about UCLA’s NCAA-record 88-game winning streak.
“When it ended,” he said. “January 19, 1974.”
As a freshman, Walton wasn’t eligible when the streak that extended over four seasons started on Jan. 30, 1971, with a victory over UC Santa Barbara. He joined it 15 games in and helped stretch it to an amazing 88 straight victories, including two consecutive 30-0 seasons and three national championships, before it ended at Notre Dame.
Connecticut’s top-ranked women’s team can equal UCLA’s record Sunday when the Huskies face No. 11 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden.
Walton counts himself a fan of UConn.
“They play with great sense of team, great purpose, phenomenal execution of fundamentals, relentless attack,” he told The Associated Press recently. “It is what every team should aspire to, regardless of the sport.”
John Wooden’s UCLA teams played the same way. And so the streak began a week after an 89-82 loss at, where else, Notre Dame, in the middle of the 1970-71 season with the senior-dominated lineup of Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, Steve Patterson, Henry Bibby and Kenny Booker.
The Fighting Irish’s Austin Carr burned the Bruins for 46 points in what would be UCLA’s last defeat for three years. UCLA went 29-1 that season and won its fifth consecutive NCAA championship.
The following season, Bibby was the lone senior, joined by starters Larry Farmer, Keith (now Jamaal) Wilkes, sophomore Walton and Greg Lee, who ran UCLA’s daunting fastbreak. The Bruins built the streak to 45-0 by winning all 30 games, scoring more than 100 points in each of their first seven.
UCLA won its sixth consecutive NCAA title and outscored opponents by 30.3 points a game, an NCAA record that still stands.
“I didn’t know how long it was going to go, but we were really playing ourselves each game,” Wilkes said. “We really felt like we weren’t going to lose again.”
And the Bruins didn’t in 1972-73. With Farmer, Wilkes, Walton, Larry Hollyfield and Lee leading the way, they went 30-0 again in an era before the shot clock and 3-point line existed. During that stretch, they beat Loyola of Chicago for their 60th consecutive victory, tying San Francisco’s NCAA record. No. 61 was a win against, who else, Notre Dame.
The Bruins had few close calls during the regular season, with only four games won by single digits.
“Thank God for Coach Wooden and him keeping us on message,” said Farmer, now an assistant at Western Michigan. “He never mentioned winning, period, much less bringing up the winning streak. We became aware of it only because all of a sudden we had a guy from Sports Illustrated around us all the time. Other than that it was business as usual.”
In the national title game, Walton made an incredible 21 of 22 shots — an NCAA record that still stands — and scored 44 points to lead the Bruins to an 86-66 win over then-Memphis State for their seventh straight national title. UCLA became the only school to complete consecutive undefeated seasons, with the streak reaching 75 games.
“Just the anticipation of what was going to happen next was incredible,” Wilkes said.
Walton and fellow seniors Wilkes, Lee and Tommy Curtis, along with junior David Meyers, opened the 1973-74 season ranked No. 1 and with 13 wins in a row, putting the streak at 88 heading into the game against second-ranked and undefeated Notre Dame.
Although he never brought it up himself, the streak burdened Wooden.
“He got tired of answering questions about it,” Wilkes recalled. “After a while, it just wouldn’t go away, it just got so big.”
So did the atmosphere at game time.
“It felt like the weight of the world that night,” Wilkes said. “It got to a point where just the intensity was so great.”
Walton came into the game wearing a back brace, having been injured in a fall the previous week against Washington State. But his pain wasn’t apparent as he hit 12 of his first 13 shots. And the Bruins were their usual dominant selves in the early going, leading by 17 points at halftime.
“In those days UCLA with the lead in the second half, the game was over,” said Farmer, who had already graduated.
The Bruins were up 70-59 before everything changed in the final 3½ minutes. They were outscored 12-0, missing six straight shots and committing four turnovers. As was his habit, Wooden never called a time-out late in games.
The Irish hit six shots in a row, capped by Dwight Clay’s jumper from the right corner with 29 seconds left, giving Notre Dame a 71-70 win. Clay had the worst shooting percentage among the Irish regulars, although he had already earned the nickname “Iceman” for his clutch shooting.
“I don’t know how he did that,” said Wilkes, who scored 18 points but went scoreless in the last eight minutes.
Walton missed a 12-footer in the final seconds, finishing with 24 points and nine rebounds.
“A complete failure on all levels, particularly as a human being. A disgrace to the game of basketball, a disgrace to sport,” he said of his performance.
While Irish fans rushed the court, enveloping young coach Digger Phelps and his team in a raucous celebration, Wooden was his usual low-key self.
“The streak meant more to others than to him,” Wooden’s daughter, Nan, said through a UCLA spokesman. “He was relieved it was over because of the outside pressure it put on the team members.”
A week later, the Bruins beat the Fighting Irish 94-75 at home.
“The game was over when the jump ball was thrown up, but the streak had ended,” Farmer said. “It was a bashing, but nobody talks about that one.”
UCLA went on to lose three more games and got beat by North Carolina State 80-77 in double overtime in the national semifinals, ending its other streak of seven NCAA titles in a row.