The UCLA Bruins hadn’t won a national championship since John Wooden retired on top following the 1975 season. The Bruins had made the Final Four a couple times in the immediate aftermath, in 1976 and again in 1980, but had otherwise been alarmingly absent from the national stage.
The 1995 UCLA basketball team, led by Ed O’Bannon at forward and quarterbacked by point guard Tyus Edney, were determined to set the right. The Bruins kept a photo of the Seattle Kingdome—site of the 1995 Final Four—in their locker room for inspiration. They won Pac-10 title and #1 seed in the West Regional, while O’Bannon took home national Player of the Year honors.
But, as so often happens in an NCAA Tournament, UCLA looked in serious trouble in the second round. Missouri took a 74-73 lead and the Bruins had to go the length of the court in five seconds or the dream was dead. Edney took the ball, went coast-to-coast and for a layup to save the day.
The Bruins traveled upstate to Oakland for the regionals, and easily dispatched fifth-seeded Mississippi State—a program that was only a year away from making a Final Four of their own. UCLA then survived UConn and a 36-point game from Ray Allen to win the regional 102-96 and punch their ticket to Seattle.
UCLA drew Oklahoma State, a surprise winner of the East bracket as a 4-seed. The Cowboys, with center Bryant “Big Country” Reeves down low, had eliminated Wake Forest and Tim Duncan, then UMass and Marcus Camby, helping make Big Country a March Madness celebrity.
The Bruins handled the Cowboys, pulling away in the second half for a 74-61 win. Edney had 21 points and five assists. O’Bannon chipped in 15, and got a lot of help from his brother Charles, who kicked in 19 points.
All that was left between the Bruins and a return to glory was the defending national champions. The Arkansas Razorbacks, with Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman each back from the 1994 title run, weren’t dominating, but they were surviving.
Arkansas barely escaped Texas Southern in the first round, winning 79-78. It took overtime to beat Syracuse in round two, and more overtime against Memphis in the Sweet 16. The Hogs caught a break when top-seeded Kansas was eliminated in the Sweet 16 of a regional being played at Kansas City and while Arkansas got a tough fight from Virginia, they won and got back to the Final Four.
A win over a good North Carolina team, led by soon-to-be NBA long timers in Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, made it look like back-to-back was Arkansas’ destiny.
Enter O’Bannon. The UCLA leader delivered one of the great championship game performances in NCAA Tournament history, right up with Kansas’ Danny Manning in 1988. O’Bannon scored 30 points and hauled down 17 rebounds. A big X-factor was UCLA freshman off-guard Toby Bailey, who scored 26. The Bruins pulled away in the second half, won 89-78 and were back on top of the college basketball world.