An hour before game time Saturday night, Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps ventured to courtside at Pauley Pavillion for a television interview. The reaction from the UCLA student section was predictable - waves of boos, followed by the chant of "Sit down, Digger."
Phelps feigned surprise, then wrapped his arm around television analyst John Wooden and waved to his antagonists, requesting cheers. He got some, if vicariously, and then the hoots resumed.
"The kids love it; I love it." Phelps replied. "UCLA has a great student body.I love to beat them."
Saturday, for the first time in the pavilion's 13-year history a UCLA team entered a game there as an underdog. For the sixth time in those 13 years, the Bruins wound up losers, 69-66.
Notre Dame, now 6-0, hit 56 per cent of its shots, set up 22 of its 32 baskets by the assist route, commited only 11 turnovers and proved most intimidating underneath to defeat the Bruins here for the second straight time.
UCLA, which had been averaging 58 per cent from the field, managed only 43. From its normally potent big men, the Bruins received 14-for-39 shooting and that won't beat any good teams.
"I can't say it's the best or greatest team I've had," Phelps said. "We haven't done anything. Let's see what we do in March. College basketball is going to be crazy this year. A team like Marquette with seven losses can win it again."
Notre Dame has made it to NCAA regional play four straight years, a mark equaled only by UCLA, but the Irish have not reached the final four. UCLA, of course, has won 10 NCAA titles in the last 14 years.
"All I want is one of those pennants," Phelps said, and he rates a chance of acquiring it this time. Notre Dame's front court players are awesome and guards Dick Williams, Rich Branning and Jeff Carpenter can handle the ball, too.
Up front the Irish have 6-foot-11 Bill Laimbeer, who blocked six UCLA shots, grabbed nine rebounds and scored 10 points; 6-9 Dave Batton, who hit nine of 11 in the first half and finished with 22 points, and 6-8 Bruce Flowers, who will be pushed aside by classy 6-7 freshman Kelly Tripucka if he has many more games like this one.
Laimbeer is from Palse Verdes and his lack of interest in classes saw him bounced out of Notre Dame 18 months ago. Laimbeer managed a 3.2 grade average at Owens Technical College last year, then collected four A's in summer school to earn his way back.
Notre Dame, with Batton scoring and Laimbeer intimidating moved 14 points ahead in the first half, was overhauled at 58-57, and then turned to a four corners offense to rip off eight straight points. UCLA retaliated with six in a row to pull up to 65-64 and, with 22 seconds left, Batton went to the line for a pair of free throws.
The noise was excruciating, but Batton sank both. Then Mackin High product Williams stole the ball at the other end and the result was assured.
"We made some mistakes we got away with," Phelps said. "We can't do it in March. But this is good experience for us. We beat a good, smart big team."
Phelps went to the four corners for the first time in six games because "I saw three of UCLA's games on video-tape and I noticed they were getting tired late in the game."
The Bruins, in their first season under Gary Cunningham, lack their unusual depth and they could certainly use Laimbeer and Branning, a sophomore from nearby Huntington Beach. They may find other West Coast blue chippers fleeing for the midlands, however.
When a UCLA student mentioned that the Bruins' fans got a bit unruly because they weren't used to losing at home, Phelps said. "They'd better be. John's gone. Those days are over."