1969 NCAA Tribute 1969 NCAA Final Four Tribute In March of 1969, Cinderella came to the dance — that is the NCAA basketball tournament — all dressed up in blue and white. Drake University sent shock waves through the tournament with stunning upsets over nationally ranked teams that shot them into the semifinal round of the Final Four against the colossal UCLA dynasty, led by immortal coach John Wooden and three-time All-American senior center Lew Alcindor, who would go on to become the all-time leading scorer in the NBA. But alas, UCLA staved off the valiant Bulldogs in the final seconds, 85-82, to end the fairy tale. Cinderella had left before the ball was over, but not before stealing the hearts of fans from coast to coast. Drake punctuated that it deserved all the accolades it had earned with a 104-84 romp past perennial power North Carolina in the thirdplace game. One of the greatest comeback teams in college basketball history — after finishing last in the Missouri Valley Conference in 1967 to an NCAA finalist spot in 1969 — from no national recognition on March 1, 1969, to a strong No. 3 national ranking on March 22, 1969. This young team captured the hearts and imagination of basketball fans around the country with a brand of basketball played faster than any team in the country, along with a patented trademark belly-button defense. The 1968-69 season was the glossiest in Drake history. The 22-4 record in the regular season brought the Bulldogs a share of the Missouri Valley Conference championship with Louisville. A 77-73 playoff victory past Louisville put the Bulldogs into the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The formation of the team started four years earlier with the recruitment of a freshman group that included Dolph Pulliam, the No. 1 catch out of Indiana (Gary/Roosevelt High School); Willie McCarter, a developing young teammate of Pulliam at Gary/Roosevelt; and Garry Odom, a 6-8 young giant who had earned All-American high school recognition at Ritenour High School in St. Louis, Mo. That was the nucleus. The freshman team three years earlier had brought 6-5 leaper Al Williams and 6-8 thin man Rick Wanamaker. More help was needed so Coach Maury John went to the junior college ranks in 1967, landing 6-5 Willie Wise from San Francisco City College; 5-11 guard Don Draper from Coffeyville (Kan.) Junior College; 6-2 Ron Gwin of Lamar (Colo.) Junior College; and 6-9 Larry Sharp from Crowder (Mo.) Junior College. The final move was made with the arrival in 1968 of guard Gary Zeller from Long Beach Junior College. The addition of Wise, Draper and Williams helped turn Drake’s fortunes from 9-16 in 1966-67 to 18-8 in 1967-68. The Bulldogs set a school record in their 1968-69 season opener by destroying Cal Poly-Pomona, 118-79. Then there were impressive nonconference victories past Marquette (68-63), Iowa (89-74), Iowa State (81-71) and Minnesota (71-48). Still, the Bulldogs would go unnoticed during the regular season. It wasn’t until the last poll of the season that the Associated Press ranked Drake No. 11. United Press International placed Drake 17th the week before and 11th on its final ranking. Drake earned a berth in the NCAA Final Four following impressive victories past Texas A&M (81-63) and Colorado State (84-77) in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Manhattan, Kan. There was a special kind of electricity in the air during the opening night of the NCAA basketball championships and each of the 18,500 seats was filled in the huge oval arena they call Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky.
Dolph Pulliam and his teammates celebrate following an 84-77 victory past Colorado State in the 1969 NCAA Midwest Regional final which vaulted the Bulldogs into the 1969 Final Four. It was generated by 10 young athletes squaring off on the brilliantly lit wooden floor. Five wore the blue of Drake for the first time in the semifinals, but it was old stuff to the other team dressed in white. This was UCLA, seeking an unprecedented third straight national championship and its fifth in six years. Drake challenged UCLA all over the floor, stealing and forcing turnovers. Within a span of 120 seconds, McCarter produced eight points. Bedlam. The nonpartisans in the stands line up behind Drake. McCarter shoots, misses, but Pulliam wrenches the ball away from UCLA’s big men-Alcindor, Curtis Rowe, Lynn Shackelford – and puts it back in. Only seven seconds left. UCLA 83, Drake 82. The ball arches toward Alcindor, high, high above the others. He’s surrounded by frantic arms. Drake arms. He pitches to midcourt. A foul is called as the game ends. It’s on Drake. The free throws are made after the gun. Final, 85-82. That was the real championship game as things turned out. Alcindor and his playmates crushed Purdue in the finals, 92-72. Coach John Wooden of UCLA faced the media. What was the matter with UCLA? “Drake,” said Wooden.“Drake gave us as much trouble – maybe more – than any team we’ve ever played in the tournament.” Curt Gowdy, the NBC announcer, had turned into an unabashed Drake fan. He said the Bulldogs had to be “the most underrated team ever to play in the final round.” Later that night during a post-game meal, the game is replayed: every agonizing, wonderful minute. They talked about McCarter’s 24 points and generalship...about Willie Wise’s 16 rebounds (Alcindor had 18)…about Dolph Pulliam’s tremendous defensive play (he held Shackelford to five points on two baskets)…the clutch play of Rick Wanamaker and guards Don Draper and Gary Zeller. Coach John talked: “I thought we played well enough to win…that one cool spell…we took it to them, didn’t we? No holding the ball (Drake put up 83 shots, UCLA 50)…I was proud of the way they played both ends.”
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