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Participants recall Walton's near-perfect game

| Sunday, April 6, 2008

SAN ANTONIO -- Kevin Love likes watching videos of classic basketball games nearly as much as the UCLA freshman likes playing in them.

He's seen a tape of the 1973 NCAA championship game, when Bill Walton and the Bruins played Memphis and calls it "very special."

Special enough to be among the greatest performances in the history of college basketball. Walton turned in the tournament's third-highest scoring game that night in St. Louis, hitting 21-of-22 shots for 44 points, including two free throws.

Love and the Bruins lost to Memphis, 78-63, in Saturday night's first national semifinal. The All-American's best shooting performance this season was a 10 for 10 in a rout of Western Illinois.

Thirty-five years ago, UCLA coach John Wooden called a timeout against the Tigers with Walton piling up points inside as fast as the seconds ticked off the clock.

"One of my guards said, 'Let's try something else,"' Wooden told The Associated Press this week.

The bespectacled coaching great looked around the huddle and told the Bruins, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

They didn't, and continued to get the ball into Walton's hands easily. UCLA won, 87-66, for its unprecedented seventh consecutive title under Wooden, who won 10 in all before retiring in 1975.

In 1973, Walton, forwards Jamaal Wilkes and Larry Farmer and guards Greg Lee and Larry Hollyfield helped the Bruins complete their second straight 30-0 season, the only school to compile back-to-back perfect seasons.

"The first half, it was a great game. We were tied, and we played very well," recalled Gene Bartow, who coached the school then known as Memphis State. "I thought we were in position in the second half to make a good run, but Bill had such a super night and UCLA was UCLA."

Walton's field-goal percentage of 95.5 remains the best in the tournament's 69-year history.

"I've teased Bill a lot about that," Wooden said. "It's remarkable. Most were easy. We were able to get the ball into him. He could turn either way. He was very good on hook shots."

Walton also grabbed 13 rebounds to help the Bruins control the boards, 40-21; it was the Tigers' lowest total in 16 years.

The junior center scored on nearly every possession in the second half, using the glass to bank in mid-range jumpers in the years before the 3-point line and shot clock existed. He was so dominant, the other players nearly melted into the background, with Walton only needing his teammates to inbound the ball so he could do the rest.

The Tigers closed the first half on an 8-2 run to tie it at 39.

"We mixed our defenses, but we had people in foul trouble early in the second half," Bartow told the AP. "Our big men had three, four fouls on them very early, and we had to be very soft with our defense. Bill was very active and had high energy."

Walton's points remain a single-game record by a Tigers' opponent.

Larry Finch led Memphis with 29 points, and Larry Kenon added 20 while guarding Walton. Kenon and UCLA's Hollyfield got technical fouls.

"He really did very well shooting," Finch's attorney Ted Hansom said. "He was just overshadowed by what Walton did because that was just unheard of for someone to shoot that kind of percentage."

Finch helped Walton off the court near the end of the game after the All-American sprained his ankle. Asked why, Finch told a newspaper in 2007, "Because he was kicking our (butt)."

That Tigers' roster included more black players than any team in school history, notable because Memphis was a racially divided city still reeling from the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., who was shot 40 years ago Friday.

That season put Memphis State on the national basketball map, with the Tigers earning their first NCAA bid since 1962.

"I was pleased and proud of that team," Bartow said. "I'd been a high school coach 15 years earlier and never dreamed I might be playing against John Wooden's Bruins for the championship. It was a special night. It still is probably the highlight of my coaching career, even though we got beat."

It would be another 33 years before the Tigers and Bruins met again in the tournament. UCLA won, 50-45, in a 2006 regional final and went on to lose to Florida in the championship game.

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