By JOE GERGEN   For The Sporting News

The myth of invincibility had died slowly in the final 3 1/2 minutes of a game against Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., where John Wooden had coached a high school team four decades earlier. Riding the crest of an unprecedented 88-game winning streak, Wooden's UCLA Bruins failed to hold an 11-point lead and lost to the Fighting Irish, 71-70.

John Wooden

Ironically, the Bruins had won at Notre Dame to break San Francisco's NCAA record for consecutive victories (60) a year earlier. Moreover, UCLA's long winning streak had begun after an 89-82 loss at Notre Dame in 1971. But on January 19, 1974, the Irish inflicted the first varsity loss on the collection of players known as the Walton Gang.

Bill Walton, the consensus All-America center and star of the team, appeared bemused by the result. The 6-foot-11 senior left the Notre Dame Athletic and Convocation Center humming the "Notre Dame Victory March," which had been played loudly and incessantly throughout the latter stages of the stunning upset.

Nor did the Bruins appear terribly distraught when they lost consecutive Pacific-8 Conference games at Oregon State and Oregon four weeks later. Oh, it was a bit of a shock, but they recovered in time to win their last five regular-season games and their eighth consecutive Pac-8 title.

Even though the Bruins had fallen behind North Carolina State in the national rankings, they were supremely confident entering the NCAA Tournament. Their three losses represented their highest season total since 1966 when UCLA was 18-8, but winning seven consecutive national championships in the interim had fostered an understandable degree of complacency.

After a first-round bye, UCLA needed three overtimes to squeeze by Dayton. The Bruins then overwhelmed San Francisco, 83-60, in the West Regional final to proceed to the Final Four, where only State was conceded a reasonable chance of dethroning UCLA. But the Bruins weren't worried. After all, they had smashed the Wolfpack, 84-66, in a nationally televised game earlier that season in St. Louis.

That loss was the only one suffered by N.C. State in the regular season. In fact, it represented the Wolfpack's lone defeat in two seasons. A year earlier, Norm Sloan's team had gone 27-0 but had been denied a berth in the NCAA Tournament because of recruiting violations.

In the eyes of N.C. State's players, students and supporters, the December meeting on a neutral court would settle the 1973 championship. It did. The Bruins won handily as consensus All-America forward David Thompson, a 6-4 Wolfpack star whose 42-inch vertical leap propelled him to heights heretofore unknown, was grounded by UCLA's consensus All-America forward, Keith Wilkes. Wilkes not only limited Thompson to 17 points, but scored 27 himself.

Though disappointed by the result, N.C. State did not suffer a competitive hangover from the thrashing. The Wolfpack emerged undefeated from a taxing Atlantic Coast Conference schedule, then scored a dramatic 103-100 overtime victory over Maryland for the ACC Tournament title and a spot in the NCAA East Regional, where Providence and Pittsburgh were defeated easily.

College basketball fans were eager to watch a UCLA-N.C. State rematch for the national title, but the Final Four pairings pitted West against East in one semifinal, meaning that the nation's top two teams would meet a game earlier than hoped.

The rematch, however, differed from the first encounter in one important respect: The site of the championship, the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum, was just 70 miles up the road from the N.C. State campus.

Not that the talent-laden Wolfpack needed it, but N.C. State clearly benefited from some fortuitous scheduling. The ACC Tournament was held in Greensboro and the East Regional semifinals and final were played in Raleigh, N.C. Now Sloan's team had an opportunity to win the national title without playing an NCAA Tournament game outside its home state.

"I want North Carolina State to remember that we beat them by 18 on a neutral court," Wooden said as he prepared his team. "I want them to think about who has the psychological advantage."

The Wolfpack contended that it had been too anxious in that first game, and that it had gained experience over the course of the season and was playing at maximum efficiency.

"We're more versatile than UCLA," Sloan said. "We have something left to prove. And we still have Thompson. I like the odds."

With all the interest focused on the UCLA-N.C. State matchup, scant attention was paid to the other semifinalists. Marquette and Kansas had struggled to win the Mideast and Midwest regionals, respectively, but their meeting provoked mostly yawns in North Carolina. Kansas coach Ted Owens jokingly referred to the first semifinal as the "preliminary" game.

And after his Marquette team, which he personally rated only seventh best in the country, had scored a humdrum 64-51 victory over the Jayhawks, Warriors coach Al McGuire decided not to waste either his or the media's time.

"We'll answer a few questions," he said, "and then you guys can go watch the championship game."

Certainly, the game that followed belonged in a championship setting. UCLA never led by more than two points and N.C. State never led by more than five in the first half, which ended, fittingly, in a 35-35 tie as Bruins forward Dave Meyers sank a 29-foot desperation jump shot at the buzzer.

Thompson was every bit the force he hadn't been in St. Louis, and 7-4 senior Tom Burleson was conceding little to Walton. And Monte Towe, a 5-7 whippet of a guard, was creating havoc in UCLA's erratic backcourt.

Still, the Bruins surged ahead in the second half. They scored 14 of the first 17 points after halftime to open a 49-38 lead. An 8-2 Wolfpack run reduced the deficit to 51-46, but then UCLA scored the next six points to go up by 11 a second time at 57-46. Only 10:56 remained.

Although they had a chance to put away the Wolfpack then and there, the Bruins responded with turnovers.

Walton was whistled for traveling. Backcourt leader Greg Lee and Meyers forced passes. Senior Tommy Curtis took questionable shots. Wilkes, who was hounded into a 5-for-17 shooting performance, couldn't steady the team.

N.C. State closed the gap to one at 57-56 and again at 61-60. Suddenly, there was Thompson elevating himself above the crowd, taking a lob pass from forward Tim Stoddard, slamming the ball through the hoop and drawing a foul. His three-point play pushed the Wolfpack into the lead, 63-61. UCLA rallied to tie at 65-65 with a little more than two minutes left.

The Bruins worked more than a minute off the clock before Walton rolled to his left and attempted a hook shot.

"Down at the end, all they could do was go to Wilkes or Walton," Wolfpack guard Moe Rivers said. "And we had them covered."

Walton's shot rolled off the rim, and Burleson rebounded.

N.C. State had a final chance. With Burleson and Thompson blanketed, the ball went to Stoddard in the corner. His jump shot missed.

Lee's shot at the buzzer also missed for the Bruins, forcing an overtime.

The extra session was played in slow motion. After Lee matched a basket by Burleson, the Wolfpack killed most of the final three minutes setting up a last shot. But Burleson's potential game-winner was off-target, so with the score still tied, 67-67, a second overtime was necessary.

UCLA appeared to be the fresher team at the start of the extra five-minute period. Walton and Wilkes combined for the first seven points, opening a 74-67 UCLA lead.

"The thought went through my head that we had two opportunities to win this game," Towe recalled. "And when we were seven points down, I thought maybe this was their turn."

Curtis obviously thought so. The cocky UCLA guard took the occasion to wave his right index finger at the pro-Wolfpack crowd with 3:27 left. Moments later, he answered two free throws by Towe with one of his own. It would be the last point his team would score until it was too late.

Turnovers by Curtis, Lee and Walton enabled N.C. State to gain control. The Wolfpack edged in front, 76-75, on a bank shot by Thompson, and his two free throws with 34 seconds left made it 78-75 and gave him a team-high 28 points. Towe's two foul shots clinched the 80-77 victory.

The sentiment in the UCLA locker room was that the Bruins had beaten themselves.

"There's nobody better than us," Lee said. "We're better than that team. You think they don't know that? We helped them. We got careless with the ball.

"We made the mistakes."

At least one N.C. State player was inclined to agree.

"Once it got down close," Rivers said, "they seemed to choke."

No matter what the cause, N.C. State had succeeded in handing UCLA its first NCAA Tournament loss in 39 games -- a stretch that began after successive losses in the 1963 tournament -- and in toppling what everyone but Wooden called a dynasty.

Still, the Wolfpack had yet to fulfill its goal.

Shortly after the Walton era officially ended with UCLA's 78-61 consolation victory over Kansas, the Wolfpack won its first national championship with a convincing if uninspired 76-64 victory over Marquette.

In the finale, N.C. State had considerable help from McGuire. The rival coach earned two technical fouls late in the first half, helping to transform a 28-27 Marquette lead into a 37-28 deficit. Including the two technical-foul shots converted by Thompson, the Wolfpack scored 10 unanswered points in a 53-second span to take charge of the game.

"We never got back on our feet after that," Warriors center Maurice Lucas said.

McGuire took the blame.

"I cost us the game," he said.

Still, he didn't want to detract from the Wolfpack's performance or talent.

"The simple truth of the matter," McGuire said, "is that State is a better team. If we played them 10 times, we might win three, we might win two. We might not even win one."

When it mattered most, N.C. State was triumphant. The Wolfpack led 39-30 at halftime, stretched its margin to 19 five minutes into the second half and won handily. And college basketball finally had a new champion after seven years of domination by UCLA.