D. Ryan Monceaux
1968 was a great year for Cougar basketball. Coach Guy V. Lewis had positioned his team for a second consecutive run at a Final Four berth. With the best collegiate player in the nation, Elvin Hayes, Houston had run off a string of 16 straight wins to open the season. But up to that point they had not met a challenge like they would on January 20, 1968.
In what most basketball experts consider "The Game of the Century," the University of Houston met UCLA in front of the largest audience ever to see a college basketball game. It was a game of many firsts.
This was the first regular-season game ever to be seen on national television. It was also the first ever basketball game in the Astrodome, in front of 52,693 people. With all of this pre-game hype, a memorable game was sure to follow.
Lew Alcindor led the top-ranked Bruins to a national title the year before and to a 13-0 record coming into the game against Houston. UCLA was riding high on a 47-game winning streak and was ready for a fight. However, the Bruins did not realize that the Coogs were also ready to battle.
Houston entered the game protecting a 48-game home winning streak. With the best team the school had ever put on the floor, the Cougars were primed for the improbable.
The teams traded leads throughout the first six minutes of the game until the Cougars took the lead for good. George Reynolds knocked in a bankshot to make the score 13-12 with 13:45 left in the first half.
Houston's lead in the first half grew to nine points, but UCLA battled back to get within three points at the break.
UH's Hayes played like an athlete possessed with his 29 points in the first half. He ended up leading all scores with 39.
The second half mirrored the first as both teams fought tooth and nail to win and halt the other's streak.
Lucius Allen led all Bruin scores with 25, and perhaps made his biggest contribution as he nailed two free-throws with 44 seconds to go, knotting the score at 69.
Houston still had an opportunity to pull the game out with less than a minute to go. The Cougars raced down the floor against UCLA's full court pressure defense to attempt to get Hayes a shot at winning the game.
However, the Bruins would not allow Hayes the opportunity to get a final shot off. Reserve forward Jim Neilson fouled Hayes with 28 seconds to go, sending the 6-9 senior to the line.
Hayes was only a 60 percent free-throw shooter, but he had the chance of a lifetime to win the first ever game on national television in the first game in the Astrodome with two free throws upcoming. This, combined with UCLA being the No. 1 team in the nation, added up to the most pressure-packed moment Hayes has ever been in.
"Yeah, it was intense," the NBA Hall of Famer said. "You could cut the tension with a knife. However, it was my job to go to the line and sink two."
And he did just that. Hayes exhibited his never-lose mentality as both shots found the hoop, resulting in a 71-69 lead for Houston. But the game was still not over. UCLA and Alcindor still had almost a half of a minute to score the tying basket.
The Bruins drew up a play in which forward Lynn Shackelford would shoot a jumper from the left corner against the Coogs' 1-3-1 zone defense. However, the ball never got into Shackelford's hands.
As guard Mike Warren cut through the defense to set up the game-tying shot for Shackelford, the ball bounced off of his foot and out of bounds, resulting in a turnover and giving UH the ball with only 12 seconds remaining.
Needless to say, UH killed the remaining 12 seconds off of the clock and upset top-ranked UCLA. The win was the biggest ever for the school, and one of the biggest upsets in college basketball history. It put Houston on the college basketball map for good, and proved the brilliance of head coach Guy V. Lewis.
Houston went on to finish the regular season at 28-0, the only Cougar team to do so. After two wins to vault into the Final Four, UH lost back-to-back games to finish the season at 30-2.
Hayes and Alcindor (who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) went on to Hall of Fame careers in the NBA and were both named to the NBA's All-Time 50 Greatest. Hayes was drafted first overall in the 1968 NBA draft by the San Diego Rockets. Alcindor holds the NBA record for all-time scoring.