The 1976-77 Idaho State men’s basketball team was inducted into the Ring of Honor Friday night for its historic run in the 1977 NCAA tournament, a run that included beating second-ranked UCLA ending its streak of ten consecutive Final Fours.
ISU beat UCLA 76-75 at BYU’s Marriott Center in front of over 22,000 fans, most of which began to pull for the Bengals when an upset seemed possible.
The win made ISU the only Big Sky school in conference history to make it to the Elite Eight, a mark that still holds true.
“Everything was going on like we won the national championship,” said former center Steve Hayes. “They gave us a key to the city.”
Members of that 1976-77 team gathered last weekend and were honored at halftime of the ISU men’s basketball game Saturday night vs. Idaho. For some, it was the first time back in Pocatello since the Cinderella run.
“It’s very, very special,” said former assistant coach Charlie Fenske, who had not been back in Southern Idaho since 1977. “That means you are the elite of the elite.”
ISU opened the 1977 NCAA tournament with a win over Long Beach State to advance to the Sweet 16, a game that was played at Holt Arena.
“If we didn’t take care of business, they could have beat us,” Fenske said. “We had three guys in double digit rebounds. That just tells you about the team. They could rebound and play defense.”
This was not the first time ISU played a national powerhouse. ISU beat Cal earlier in the season and played Louisville the year before. But this was different. This was UCLA.
“I remember a free throw where I was trying to box out Marcus Johnson,” Hayes recalls. “He got the rebound, went up and dunked. I went, ‘Oh my, this is UCLA,’”
ISU hung with the Bruins the entire way before Scott Goold hit a turnaround jumper in the second half to give the Bengals the lead.
“The whole time you’re thinking, ‘can we really hold onto this?’” said small forward Brand Robinson. “You come down the stretch and you keep thinking that it’s going to slip away. But it didn’t.”
With ISU leading late in the second half, all the Bengals had to do was make free throws to complete one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history.
The outcome lays on the fingertips of true freshmen Ernie Wheeler.
“For a true freshman to hit four free throws down the stretch, it was pretty amazing,” Robinson said. “It was just us believing in ourselves.”
As the final buzzer sounded, 22,000-plus fans began to celebrate with a school whose total enrollment is almost half of that number.
“That changed everything in itself,” Fenske said. “You can’t prepare for an atmosphere like that.”
The buzzer marked the end of an empire as UCLA fired second year head coach Gene Bartlow who took over in the shadows of John Wooden in the wake of the loss.
UCLA didn’t win another national championship until 1995 and appeared in two Final Fours over the next thirty years after winning ten national championships in a 13-year span.
“The next day all of a sudden we have media attention,” Hayes said. “Even though we had beat Long Beach State, Sports Illustrated put out this article about the ISU-UCLA game that had two questions – Did they have athletic scholarships at Idaho State and why would anyone take one? Now, the media is saying, ‘what just happened?’”
The media attention helped players like Hayes and Goold improve their NBA draft stock but also presented a distraction as ISU still had to play UNLV in two nights for the right to go to the Final Four.
“We’re doing a shoot around practice and listening to coach about what we’re going to do about UNLV,” Hayes said, who spent seven years in the NBA. “All we hear are interview here, interview there. There really was no preparation time.”
ISU lost to UNLV in the Elite Eight, but the Sweet 16 win was more than enough of a reason to celebrate for a small public university in Southern Idaho.
“To accomplish what we accomplished, it was a dream come true,” Hayes said. “We beat UCLA and it was like we won the national championship. We lost to Las Vegas, but nobody remembers that.”
Forty years later, a lot has changed both in the lives of the players, coaches and the game of basketball.
Robinson had not returned to Pocatello since his graduation, Hayes now lives in Houston and has children and grandchildren that still live in Southern Idaho while Fenske lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“Even walking into Reed Gym, it smells the same,” Robinson said. “Those memories are a great time for us.”
Since 1977, the NCAA tournament has expanded from 32 teams to 68, added a three-point line in 1986 and a 45-second shot clock in the same season, which was reduced to 30 seconds in 2015-16 season with a stop at 35 seconds in the 1993-94 season.
“We were probably one of the biggest Cinderella teams that had been in the NCAA tournament,” Robinson said.