The wildest four days in Gophers men's basketball history occurred March 19-22, 1997. It started on Wednesday night when thousands of civilians in maroon toggery took over San Antonio's River Walk and turned it into a celebration of Gophers fever.
On Thursday, Bobby Jackson played the greatest game you will ever see from a University of Minnesota athlete, and the No. 1-seeded Gophers withstood physical, relentless Clemson, 90-84, in two overtimes. It was the best college basketball game I had ever covered at the time, and nothing since has equalled it.
On Friday, the Minnesota invasion of San Antonio grew by two-fold, until there were an estimated 20,000 Gophers fans drinking, eating, hollering, and drinking some more.
On Saturday, it was not quite as difficult for Clem Haskins' Gophers -- an 80-72 victory over UCLA that sent Minnesota to the Final Four. Later, the accomplishments were excised from the record book, but if you were included in the mass of Gophers' humanity for those four days, you will never forget.
Another notable Gophers-UCLA meeting also has been wiped away, by faded memories rather than the meddling of NCAA do-gooders.
Bill Fitch was at the start of his second and final season as Gophers coach in 1969-70. There were no exhibitions and no games permitted before Dec. 1. The first week was foreboding, with Notre Dame coming to Williams Arena on Dec. 1, and a visit from three-time defending national champion UCLA on Saturday (Dec. 6).
The great Austin Carr scored 31 points and Notre Dame beat the Gophers 84-75. Yes, 75 points and afterwards, Fitch was complaining that he had not prepared his team properly to operate against an unexpected 1-3-1 zone from the Irish.
Today, if our glorious, NCAA-bound Gophers are confused by a zone, the point total generally doesn't reach 50.
It was a different game in 1969. It was pre-three and pre-shot clock. Meaning, there was no one to whine about shooting too early in the clock, so if you had a shot, you took it.
Carr went 13 for 27 on his way to 31. Ollie Shannon, a gunner of considerable note, went 7 for 25 in scoring 18 points. In 40 minutes, Notre Dame took 72 shots and the Gophers took 84. Those were the days ...
UCLA arrived in town on Friday. It had won its three-in-a-row with Lew Alcindor (later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) as an unstoppable center. He had gone to the Milwaukee Bucks. Steve Patterson took over at center, and the Bruins still had the fabulous forwards -- Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe.
Jon Roe from the Minneapolis Tribune had a pregame interview with John Wooden in which the UCLA coach said: "In those three years, it got the point where we were playing each game with the attitude of trying not to lose. Everyone expected us to win ...
"That puts a lot of pressure on the kids and the coaches. The coaches are mature enough to adjust to it, but for the kids it's awfully tough.
"Now this year, we can play to win the game.''
According to Roe, there was a twinkle in Wooden's eye when he said this.
The twinkle turned to stress on Saturday afternoon. The Gophers got 29 points (10 for 21 from the field) from Shannon, big games upfront from Larry Mikan and Larry Overskei, and they had UCLA beat 68-66 near the buzzer. Then, Wicks tipped in a missed shot with 3 seconds left, forcing overtime, which UCLA won 4-3 and to win the game, 72-71.
Fitch threw an empty pop can against a locker room wall afterwards and said: "We had them with third down and long yardage, and we let them get away.''
Fitch would get away after that season, taking the job as coach of the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers to start an outstanding NBA career. UCLA would win another championship, the middle title of seven in a row.
You want to know what Gophers basketball was in the Twin Cities' sports conscience on Dec. 6, 1969, compared to what it became almost instantly with the arrival of young Bill Musselman as coach for the 1971-72 season?
The crowd on that Saturday afternoon of the one-point loss to John Wooden and his dynastic UCLA Bruins was announced at 7,658.
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