Montana basketball fans haven't forgotten the night the Grizzlies almost did the impossible. Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden hasn't, either.
"I remember that game, and I'll always remember the great game Eric Hays had against us," Wooden told the Missoulian newspaper this week. "We knew he was a fine player. We just didn't know how fine."The night was March 22, 1975 - the last time Montana appeared in the NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies took UCLA to the limit before losing 67-64, and a week later, the Wooden-coached Bruins won the national championship.
Montana is back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that night, and the Grizzlies again have drawn a national powerhouse - top-ranked Nevada-Las Vegas, which plays Montana in a first-round game Friday night at Tucson, Ariz.
Wooden has said UNLV isn't on the level of his powerhouse UCLA teams of the 1960s and 1970s, but he also said Montana may have an even tougher assignment Friday night that it did 16 years ago.
"My team then wasn't on a mission," Wooden said. "We weren't trying to prove anything, because we'd won a number of championships. But this Las Vegas team is trying to prove a point. Those players want to defend that title."
The Grizzlies (23-7) are 30-point underdogs against defending champion UNLV (30-0), and no sane person is suggesting the Grizzlies might pull an upset. But Montana fans still like to dream, and when they do, the subject of the 1975 game with UCLA invariably comes up.
The game was played in Portland, Ore., in the Western Regionals. UCLA boasted the likes of Marques Johnson and all-American David Meyers. Montana had a short forward named Eric Hays.
Hays scored a career-high 32 points. He made all nine of his shots and scored 19 points in the first half against Meyers, and the Grizzlies trailed 34-33 at halftime.
Montana fell behind by nine in the second half before Hays and center Ken McKenzie pulled the Grizzlies within 64-62. Free throws by Pete Trgovich and Johnson in the final 40 seconds allowed UCLA to escape.
Wooden said this week he was worried that the Bruins, who came in with a 24-3 record, would take the Grizzlies lightly.
"I knew Jud from his days as an assistant to Marv Harshman at Washington State," Wooden said. "I knew they'd play sound defense. I don't think my players gave them, perhaps, the respect they were due."