On March 13, 1953, the University of Washington and Seattle University's men's basketball teams meet for the first time -- a showdown of All-Americans made all the more dramatic because the contest is in the West Coast regional tournament with a possible trip to the national championships at stake. The Huskies have just won their third straight Pacific Coast Conference championship and are led by 6-foot-7 Bob Houbregs (1932-2014), a first-team All-American and national player of the year. The Chieftains have an All-American of their own in 5-foot-9 Johnny O'Brien (b. 1930), who, like Houbregs, is his school's all-time leading scorer. Johnny and his twin brother Eddie O'Brien (1930-2014) led Seattle to a record of 28-3 to secure an at-large berth in the regionals. Washington's record is 27-2.
Seattle sports fans had been clamoring for this matchup. In an era when the city had no professional sports teams, Houbregs and the O'Briens were among its biggest stars.
The regional tournament site was Oregon State's Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, with the Huskies-Chieftains matchup to precede Santa Clara vs. Wyoming. "This city today was transformed into the basketball hotbed of the Pacific Coast," reported The Seattle Times. "... Tickets are so scarce here that seekers are offering $20 to $25 to scalpers for reserved seats; and that despite 'live' television coverage in Seattle and Portland" ("Fans Give Huskies ..."). With KING-TV filming, it was the first out-of-state game broadcast in Seattle. A capacity crowd of 10,214 saw it in person.
It wasn't much of a contest. Washington, coached by Tippy Dye (1915-2012), jumped to a 24-11 lead in the first quarter, and the Chieftains, coached by Al Brightman (1923-1992), were unable to get closer than 11 points the rest of the way. The Huskies led 68-48 at the end of the third quarter, and stormed to a 90-57 advantage before Dye pulled his starters with three minutes remaining. The final score was Washington 92, Seattle 70.
Johnny O'Brien was hemmed in by Washington's swarming defense and managed 25 points, seven of them in the meaningless final minutes against Husky reserves.
Houbregs was dominating from the start, and ultimately, record-setting. He had 43 points when Dye took him out of the game with 3:15 remaining. Various onlookers -- the scorekeeper, Washington fans, and even the courtside sportswriters -- shouted to the Huskies coach that Houbregs was just shy of the NCAA record for most points in a game. Dye sent his star back to make one more basket, which he quickly did before calling time out and returning to the bench. His 45 points topped the record set the previous year by Clyde Lovellettte (1929-2016) of Kansas.
"Like I tell people, I was proud to hold Bob to 45 points," Johnny O'Brien joked in 2014. "He had a great hook shot, and we decided to overplay him to his right hand and force him to the basket so he couldn't get that shot. Unfortunately, our off-side forward couldn't get around to him quickly enough. It turned into a gym-rat game and they were better than us" ("Remembering Bob Houbregs ...")
The loss ended Seattle U.'s season. Washington defeated Santa Clara the next night to win the regional and advance to the national semifinals in Kansas City, where it was considered the favorite to win the national title. But it lost its semifinal game to Kansas, in part because Houbregs fouled out early in the third quarter. The Huskies recovered to beat Louisiana State and place third in the nation, still the highest finish in school history.
Houbregs, who scored 42 points against LSU, later said the dramatic showdown with the Chieftains took a toll on the Huskies. "Everybody was so hyper for the Seattle U. game," he said. "We were really ready for that. We expended a lot of energy. When we played Kansas, I don't think we were ready. We were a better team, I believe, but we just didn't have any energy" ("Wayback Machine").