Can't compete with the Final Fours and Pac-10 titles, right? Or with the crazy comeback against Gonzaga, and the one-point win over USC? Well…maybe it can. Because after injury-plagued, foul-prone UCLA registered a gritty 80-75 comeback at Oregon last Thursday, Howland called it one of the best win he's been a part of in his 27 years in coaching.
Surprised? Well, a classic is a classic.
Bruin fans knew it immediately. Even before Howland's post-game pronouncement, the excited phone calls and texts were flying: Where does it rank? Top ten? Top five? I'm putting this Oregon Lovefest at Number Five in the Howland Era, behind Gonzaga '06, Kansas '07, LSU '06, Memphis '06, and tied with @Washington State '07.
All big games, some on the biggest stages. This Oregon game, though, was a hometown grudge match; it will be remembered as the one in which Bruin freshman Kevin Love, despite being heaped with classless and pretty disgraceful abuse by Ducks fans, played one of the better games by a Bruin in the past decade.
A quick Love Lesson: Love grew up in Oregon (Lake Oswego), and was the best player in the history of the state. He signed with UCLA. Oregon fans were bitter. He left for California. The End.
However, Love proved that you can go home again -- as long as you can deal with a steady shower of curses, homophobic chants, and obscene taunts directed at you and your family (courtesy of the Oregon Ducks student section). It was so bad that the Oregon Athletic Director later called Love and Coach Howland to apologize.
Regardless, Love dealt with it, showing class and resilience, and decimated Oregon with 26 points and 18 rebounds.
"I can't tell you if there was a better feeling in my whole basketball career than just walking off that court, taking the higher road and just feeling good about that game," Love said to reporters. "It was one of my favorite games ever to win."
Less memorable, perhaps, but equally important for this team's fortunes, was UCLA point guard Darren Collison, who rediscovered his offense and assertiveness (22 points, six assists, one turnover). Combined with clutch play from Russell Westbrook (15 points), suddenly the Bruins went from looking depleted and a bit lost after the collapse against USC, to a team that just passed a major test, and knew it.
However, I have a confession. Unlike the Bruin players and coaches, I gave up on this one. Had chalked it up as a loss. Really didn't see the comeback coming.
Let's set the scene. McArthur Court, cramped, hellaciously loud, notoriously tough on all visitors, not just Love. Oregon was playing the game of their season, fully energized, and UCLA was down seven points with about ten minutes left—without four of the Bruins top nine players (three due to injury, one fouled out) and a fifth player on the bench with four fouls.
Plus, UCLA's defenders hadn't stopped anyone in green and yellow all night. If the frat guy in the Duck mascot costume had put on a jersey, I think he might have broken Josh Shipp's ankles with a crossover dribble, quacked down the lane, laid it in, and popped his jersey at the Bruin bench.
It was reaper grim, and fairly desperate for UCLA. At that point, I was half-expecting Howland to ask Love's father, Stan, to come out of the stands and give him a few minutes at power forward. Keep Malik Hairston in front of you, Stan, and hedge on the ball screens!
On the heels of the letdown against USC, with all the built-in excuses of injuries, foul trouble, loose balls always bouncing to Oregon, in a tough arena...at that point, it just didn't seem like this one was happening.
Like The Wire's Proposition Joe, face-to-face with his young conqueror Marlowe, I felt resigned to fate. It was a rough night on the road, for UCLA and its fans. RIP, Prop Joe. RIP, Bruins. (For this night, anyway.)
At least, that's how it seemed. Then a funny thing happened, something utterly predictable, in retrospect.
UCLA did what it has done, over and over again, under Howland's coaching. They fought, and scrapped, and never gave up.
And the other guys eventually blinked.
But still true.
Last year, after UCLA beat a more-talented Kansas team in the Elite Eight, grinding down the Jayhawks with defense, clutch play, and heart to make its second straight Final Four, I wrote that this was "the New Golden Era" of UCLA basketball.
I stand by that. And sometimes a golden era isn't measured only in championships or cutting down the nets.
Sometimes, one sees it in gutting out win after win, in games it probably should lose. Howland's Bruins have done this time and again, most shockingly on the national stage against Gonzaga two years ago -- the signature win of the Howland Era -- but it's happened often enough that it's starting to seem almost by design. Pac-10 opponents must be sick of it.
Against Oregon, the caliber of the program that Howland has built in Westwood was evident; the grit and confidence of his players shone through in those last few minutes.
Led by Love, Collison, and Westbrook, the Bruins kept scoring (UCLA's offense had perhaps its best game of the season), and they finally got some defensive stops. And gradually, they chipped away at the Ducks' lead.
With about three minutes left, reserve Nikola Dragovic hit his first meaningful shot in two seasons at UCLA, rattling in a three-pointer to pull the Bruins to within one point of Oregon. Then Westbrook made a steal and drove the length of the court, dribbling with his off (left) hand the whole way, before clinically finishing with a lefty lay-up over an Oregon player, to put the Bruins up by one. It was a deceptively difficult play, one that Westbrook would not have made a year ago; not many players in the entire conference have the requisite skill and poise to do so in that situation, either.
Love and Collison finished it from there, mostly from the foul line. Afterward, the junior point guard and the freshman center shared a hug at mid-court. The taunting had stopped.
In a post-game TV interview, Love let out some of his anger and disdain for the treatment he received: "You don't want to wake up the monster, and that's what they did." He wasn't smiling, but Bruin fans were.
Love has played in only 20 college games but, as is the case with superstars, he's already created a disproportionate share of highlights (Maryland, Michigan State, the Bay Area road trip, Washington State).
The Oregon game goes beyond mere highlight, into the realm of UCLA lore.
It's easy to forget that UCLA played another game after that. Saturday, the Bruins dispatched a beleaguered Oregon State squad that may not win a conference game this year. It was more of the same from UCLA. Collison scored a career-high 33 points, and Love won the Pac-10 Player of the Week, as he added 16 points and 21 rebounds against the Beavers.
Other individual awards for Love will surely follow: Pac-10 Freshman of the Year is a foregone conclusion, I would think. Pac-10 Player of the Year looks increasingly possible, maybe even likely. 1st team All American? National Player of the Year? Love is in the discussion.
But as his confidence and comfort level grows, it's not the accolades piling up, so much as a vibe that continues to build. Because Love's old-school play and overall demeanor are starting to remind me of someone else: Ed O'Bannon, fiery, intense, and focused, in his senior season.
Premature? Sure. But Love is starting to have that look in his eye that O'Bannon had, the one that says that he wasn't going to lose. The one he had before kissing the center court of Pauley Pavilion and cutting down the nets in Seattle.