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In what is widely regarded as the Game of the Century in college basketball, the University of Houston Cougars and the UCLA Bruins met in a regular season game on January 20, 1968. The game played at the Astrodome in Houston is credited with putting college basketball on the national media radar, paving the way for the current craze that follows the game.
The game itself was a bruising affair with both teams in the middle of impressive winning streaks eager to prove themselves superior. Aside from the scintillating play that ensued on the court, the game was graced by two future NBA superstars in the form of the Cougars’ Elvin Hayes and Lew Alcindor (today known as Kareem Abdul Jabar) of the Bruins.
Buildup and Passage of the Game
The Bruins, with Alcindor in their ranks had dominated the NCAA during that era, having won the championship in 1964, 1965 and 1967. The Bruins were on a 47-game winning streak and the Cougars had not lost a game since the two teams last met. The Cougars were perennial rivals and victims of the Bruins so an early matchup between the two teams provided a perfect chance for Guy Lewis, then Cougars coach to prove that his team were not just also-runs. The two teams had met in the 1967 NCAA Tournament, with the Bruins winning 73-58 and going ahead to win the championship.
With both sides aware that the game would help greatly in promoting college basketball, it was promoted vigorously in all kind of media. It was to be broadcasted nationally through a syndicated package organized by TVS. TVS looped in 120 stations to broadcast the game, with many of them ditching regular programming to air the game.
The first half of the game ended with the Cougars leading by three points. In the second half, the anticipated matchup between Hayes and Alcindor picked up steam with Hayes blocking three of the latter’s shots. However, Alcindor playing with an injury, was not anywhere near his best form. The teams were tied at 69-69 with two minutes left in the game but Hayes scored two free throws after being fouled by Bruins reserve player Jim Nielsen. A barrage of offensive action by the Bruins followed but thanks to some poor shooting and comical possession errors, the Cougars were able to hold on for a 71-69 win which brought to an end the Bruins’ famed winning streak.
Aftermath of the Game
Before this game, NCAA games had only been broadcast during post season but this proved to be a runaway success. Aside from the crowd of 52,693 who witnessed the game at the Astrodome, hundreds of thousands more tuned in on TV. Each team was awarded $125,000 which was four times the amount the participants from the 1968 NCAA tournament received.
Both teams continued on a positive trajectory for the season, with neither of them losing a game that season. They met in the 1968 semifinals and the Bruins were able to exert revenge over the Cougars, winning 101-69. UCLA then defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels in the final to win a championship that had eluded them for some time.