It’s really funny how much of a difference 48 hours can make.
On Thursday night in the Palouse, UCLA’s 23rd-ranked basketball team was absolutely slammed by a team that many considered to be the worst in the Pac-12 Conference, Washington State, and doubts on whether or not these Bruins could win the conference title resurfaced in a big way.
Especially considering that their next match-up was against a Washington Husky squad that had beaten UCLA in Seattle every year since 2004.
A scant two days later, on Saturday morning, Ben Howland’s team showed something that legendary coach John Wooden always emphasized – character – and, to paraphrase the great man, were “At their best when their best was needed” as they used a stellar second half to beat Washington at Alaska Airlines Arena, 61-54, to become the Pacific 12 Conference regular season champions.
This conference title was Howland’s fourth at UCLA during his ten-year tenure as coach, and the first for these Bruin hoopsters since 2008.
Technically, the Bruins’ Pac-12 crown became official when Oregon, who was tied with UCLA when the day began, lost 72-62 to Utah a few minutes after the Bruins handled their business, but make no mistake about it…
This was a title that was well earned as the Bruins, at 13-5 (23-8 overall), overcame being outrebounded in nearly every contest and losing to teams such as Cal Poly and last-place Washington State to earn the top seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, earning a first-round bye, and will play either 8th-seeded Stanford or 9th-seeded Arizona State on Thursday, March 14, in Las Vegas’ MGM Grand Garden Arena.
But let’s get back to UCLA’s big, championship-clinching win:
With six minutes left the Bruins, after being in a nip-and-tuck battle with Washington all day, found themselves down by four.
Then the Huskies felt UCLA’s wrath as the Bruins proceeded to quiet the 8,747 boisterous Washington fans by shutting down their offense, not letting them score for the next five minutes while surging ahead themselves. Larry Drew II, who broke Pooh Richardson’s single season record for assists earlier in the season, applied the final dagger when he hit a jump shot to put his team ahead 59-54 with less than a minute left.
Another factor in the Bruin triumph was the 29 points they scored off of the 19 Washington turnovers that they forced, which demonstrated the formula for UCLA wins this year – create points off turnovers and shoot well, which the Bruins did a better job of on Saturday.
Shabazz Muhammad silenced the Husky fans’ chants of “Overrated!” by scoring a game-high 21 points and grabbing six rebounds, shooting much better than he did at Washington State as he made eight of 17 shots, while Jordan Adams added 17 points and Travis Wear scored ten.
“To win it (in Seattle, where they haven’t won in nine years), with all the adversity we’ve been through, is special,” said Howland, whose four conference titles are surpassed only by Wooden.
Drew added, as he tried to hold back the obligatory tears of joy, “I’m numb right now…A lot of people wrote us off early in the season. We had a group of guys who believed in one goal.”
Which they, to their great credit, achieved – at least one part of it as while a conference championship is wonderful, it’s a laurel that they absolutely cannot rest on.
I’m sure these Bruins understand that, as they should keep in mind that last year’s regular season champ, Washington, was snubbed by the NCAA Tournament committee for the Big Dance after tanking in the Pac-12 Tourney, being forced instead to go to the second-tier NIT.
UCLA can ill afford to suffer the same fate, so it’s imperative to make a good showing in Las Vegas starting on Thursday.
A preview and analysis on how I think the Bruins will do in the Pac-12 Tournament, as well as some brief thoughts on how I think that dance will go – who I think can win it (besides UCLA) and who the proverbial dark horses are – will appear on this site on Tuesday.
#8 Stanford or #9 Arizona State: Pac-12 Tournament, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, NV – Thursday, March 14, 12 noon
TV: Pac-12 Networks