Four Ways UCLA Can Beat USC’s Pair of Threes

By J.A. Adande, Courtesy Of The Los Angeles Times
Updated: November 29, 2005

LOS ANGELES If anyone’s qualified to brief UCLA on how to stop a 33-game winning streak, it’s a former Bruin named Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

On Jan. 9, 1972, Abdul-Jabbar led the Milwaukee Bucks past the Lakers, ending a winning streak that remains the longest in pro sports history.

Hmmm, that was 33 years ago. And Abdul-Jabbar wore No. 33. Numerologists, knock yourselves out.

UCLA’s football team will need any edge it can find to end USC’s 33-game winning streak Saturday at the Coliseum. Even Abdul-Jabbar sounded a little skeptical that his alma mater could make it happen.

“If they can be competitive, I’ll be satisfied,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Playing the national champs, it’s a tall order. SC has done a great job recruiting and coaching. They’re No. 1 for obvious reasons.”

Abdul-Jabbar has watched most of UCLA’s 9-1 season.

“I’ve always been a football fan,” he said. “My first two years at UCLA, we beat SC. And then they got O.J.”

Starting with O.J. Simpson’s arrival in 1967 the Trojans went 10-2-1 in the next 13 editions of the rivalry. USC has won the last six meetings with the Bruins, but that number has been eclipsed by the Big 3-3.

“It’s amazing,” UCLA Coach Karl Dorrell said. “They’ve taken everyone’s best shot, and they still come out victorious each and every time.”

But every streak has to end sometime, right? For the 1971-72 Lakers, it happened on a Sunday afternoon in Milwaukee. Abdul-Jabbar scored 39 points as the Bucks knocked off the Lakers on national TV, 120-104.

“We played well for the first three quarters, then we just had a bad-shooting fourth quarter,” recalled Bill Sharman, the coach of the ’71-72 Lakers. “And of course, Milwaukee had a great, great team.”

Here are a few key points the Bruins might want to keep in mind: 1. Take heart from the past: In the 12th game of the Lakers’ streak, Milwaukee came close but lost by seven points.

“We felt that if we had played better in that game, they wouldn’t have even been able to be at the brink [of history] like that,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We knew we could compete with them. We just got a little bit determined and felt that it was time to stop.”

The Bruins had a close call with USC in the 22nd game of this current streak, losing by five points last year.

2. Remember your own streak: The Bucks had established the previous NBA record of 20 consecutive victories in 1970-71, only to watch the Lakers erase them from the history books.

“That was a little bit more of an incentive for us,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

UCLA had its own 20-game winning streak that ended seven years ago. Nobody talks about that — or when the Bruins lorded it over USC for eight consecutive games — anymore.

3. Be thankful for what they’re not: For Abdul-Jabbar, playing the Lakers meant a matchup with Wilt Chamberlain.

“Wilt was a tough assignment, but he wasn’t in scoring mode in those days,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Thank goodness.”

Chamberlain averaged only 14.8 points in 1971-72, the first time in his career he scored fewer than 20 points a game. It was a huge drop-off from the Chamberlain Abdul-Jabbar remembered watching a decade earlier, when Wilt averaged 50 points a game.

“I was just thankful I wasn’t going against that version of Wilt,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

UCLA doesn’t have to face the same dominant defense that Pete Carroll had working during his first four seasons at USC. This year’s Trojan opponents are averaging 21.5 points, the most under Carroll and 8.5 points more than last season. The 351 yards allowed are the most under Carroll and almost 52 more than last year.

4. Make an extraordinary play: You’d think Abdul-Jabbar would recall a sky hook from that historic game, but his most memorable play was on defense, when he hustled to save a ball that was going out of bounds.

“All of a sudden, the momentum changed and we went on and won it,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

UCLA linebacker Spencer Havner had a chance at a special play last year, but a bad call by the officials negated a fumble recovery that could have led to a touchdown. Havner or one of his teammates will have to create turnovers for the Bruins to win.

And here’s a bonus tip for the Bruins, courtesy of Sharman’s recollections of the Western Conference finals against Milwaukee that season. The Lakers lost Game 1 at home, and Sharman was fretting about the 33-game streak and the then-record 69 games the Lakers won that season.

“I’m thinking, ‘If we lose the playoffs, all those achievements will be kind of wasted,’ ” Sharman said.

“It just seems like [the streak] goes for so long. Then if we don’t win the playoffs, all that we accomplished won’t look very important.”

USC has that added pressure Saturday. For USC, victory means an opportunity for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship.

For UCLA, it’s a football game. But it wouldn’t hurt to listen to the words of a basketball player.