March 17, 1977: It is still Idaho State’s greatest athletic achievement—and it’s considered to be the night the UCLA basketball dynasty died.Just two seasons after legendary coach John Wooden retired, the Bengals upset the Bruins 76-75 on St. Patrick’s Day in the second round of the NCAA Tournament before more than 22,000 fans in Provo. Steve Hayes, ISU’s seven-foot center from Aberdeen, had 27 points and 12 rebounds. And Jeff Cook, a 6-10 forward, pulled down 14 rebounds to go with eight points. But it was freshman Ernie Wheeler who coolly drained four free throws in the final 51 seconds to shock the hoops world.
The stunning loss ended a run of 10 consecutive Final Fours for UCLA, who came into the tournament with a No. 2 national ranking under second-year coach Gene Bartow. It would be Bartow’s final game at UCLA, where expectations were impossible. They would have been for anybody trying to fill Wooden’s shoes. Bartow moved on to UAB. Perspective is important here, because there has never been a college basketball dynasty like that of the Bruins from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. They won 10 national championships in 12 years before Wooden’s retirement, including seven in a row.
ISU was coached by Jim Killingsworth, who had led the Bengals to at least a share of three Big Sky regular season championships and compiled a 109-54 record. His teams were tough. The upset of UCLA would be Killingsworth’s second-to-last game at Idaho State. After a loss to UNLV in the Elite Eight, he would leave to take over at Oklahoma State. His stay in Stillwater lasted two seasons. Killingsworth found a better fit at TCU, where he spent eight seasons and rebuilt the program.In 1986-87, he led the Horned Frogs to their first NCAA Tournament berth in 16 years. He retired following that season.
(Tom Scott hosts the Scott Slant segment during the football season on KTVB’s Sunday Sports Extra. He also anchors four sports segments each weekday on 95.3 FM KTIK and one on News/Talk KBOI. His Scott Slant column runs every Wednesday.)