After two eerily similar comeback wins last weekend, against Stanford on Thursday and Cal on Saturday -- the former winning a third consecutive Pac-10 championship for the Bruins, the latter almost straining credulity -- one thing seems clear as No. 2-ranked UCLA heads into the postseason.
This team will not lose right now.
It may be the greatest strength of Howland's Bruins, version 5.0, this blend of resilience, confidence, experience, and let's face it, luck.
A quick recap: In the Pac-10 game of the year on Thursday, the Bruins trailed virtually the entire game before they mounted Furious Comeback I and tied the Cardinal with 2.5 seconds left after a controversial call gave two free throws to Darren (Uber Stones) Collison. He icily drained them to tie the game, and UCLA then pulled away in overtime to win, 77-67.
Clearly a bit hung over from that game, they played very poor defense against Cal on Saturday, and again trailed for virtually the entire game. Time for Furious Comeback II: Down four points with 20 seconds left, UCLA pulled out the win on a three-pointer by Kevin Love, a controversial steal, and an even more controversial circus shot by Josh Shipp -- with 1.5 seconds left -- from behind and to the side of the basket. The shot ("A dream, a movie shot" said Shipp. "I'm lucky I play H-O-R-S-E.") may or may not have been technically legal. But it counted, the Bruins won, 81-80, and Cal joined Stanford in Bitterville, population: Them.
"I think we've aged Coach Howland about 10 years in the past two games," a grinning Love said to reporters.
Since any of three late critical refereeing decisions over the two-game span could have gone against the Bruins -- and none of them did -- it touched off a nationwide debate among college hoops pundits and fans.
UCLA: Lucky or good?
Depends which side you're on. Stanford's radio announcer asked (only half-jokingly) if UCLA's Pac-10 championship banner should come with an asterisk. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas still opined that UCLA was the best team in the country. Opposing fans saw conspiracies at worst, unfairness at best. Stanford players and coaches, to their credit, didn't complain much. Cal's, well, did.
And UCLA fans, uniformly ecstatic after the Stanford comeback, had their joy at Shipp's miracle shot (nicknamed Holy Shipp! on the BRO Premium Hoops message board) tempered with some nagging doubts: Chiefly, why does UCLA keep falling behind and needing these miracle comebacks?
Or, more bluntly: Is this team, clearly a number 1 seed, good enough to win the National Championship, and hang Banner Twelve in Pauley?
Because I agree with Mary J. Blige ("Don't need no Hater-ation"), I'm going to start with two positive Bruin perspectives, the first from Coach Howland. Publicly going glass-half-full, he said, "I'm really proud of our comeback. I'm most proud of our team attitude. They never, ever, stop believing they're going to win the game. It shows."
The second perspective comes from the Bruin players themselves, collectively, who mobbed Shipp on the court after the buzzer sounded. And though Love acknowledged "We can't keep doing this to ourselves," there was nothing but joy and smiles. There was no public worry, no grumbling about margins of victory, or referees, or fatigue and lack of depth -- they were kids who were ecstatic to win; players who believed in themselves, to a man preaching their Never Quit mantra.
The hand wringing and anxiety -- that's for us fans.
The Cal game's importance was unclear. It might have been critical to keeping a number 1 seed. It certainly was a nice way for senior center and fan favorite Lorenzo Mata-Real to go out. Maybe it helped Shipp's confidence. Perhaps it kept UCLA's steely confidence intact.
But there was no mistaking what was at stake in Thursday's contest against second-place Stanford, ranked No. 7 in the nation, and playing great. Separated by just one game, it was the de facto title game in the toughest conference in America.
Like many critical Bruin games this year, UCLA started slowly, and found themselves staring down a big deficit from early on. "We've been here before," said Collison. "It's not the first time."
Nope. And it looked increasingly desperate as the game wore on. Stanford was playing its best game of the year, and led by its 7-foot twins, Brook and Robin Lopez, jumped on the Bruins early and didn't let up, taking a 12-point lead at halftime at Pauley Pavilion.
The second half was a different story, as UCLA made its obligatory Howland Halftime Adjustment (can he patent this things?), but Stanford weathered every Bruin counterpunch, and still held an 11-point lead with under six minutes to play.
I found myself – again -- not quite believing UCLA had another big comeback left, in this season of comebacks. But as the next five minutes plus overtime unfolded, really, why was I- -- or any Bruin fan -- surprised?
Emotionally drained? Given.
After Gonzaga ‘06, after Michigan State ‘08, after Oregon in Eugene ‘08, after Cal in Berkeley ‘06, after Washington '05, after [insert ridiculous Bruin comeback HERE], how could I be surprised? I'd seen them all.
And when UCLA beat Oregon on the road in January, overcoming a late double-digit deficit, injuries, foul trouble, and the now-infamous crowd abuse to gut-check a huge win against the Ducks, my buddy Murph summed it up with the following text: "I take life lessons from these kids."
A tad strong? After the Cardinal game, I'm not so sure.
Because after watching UCLA overcome that 11-point deficit in those final six minutes, one could do worse than try to learn something from the way UCLA plays basketball these past few years. (And this was before the Cal game).
"I'm so proud of my teammates," said Collison to reporters. "They could have given up. But there's no quit."
Lessons about perseverance and heart were there for anyone to see, watching Collison, Russell Westbrook, Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute collectively make big play after big play down the stretch. In fact, there were so many they almost blurred together, and singling out the most crucial, the most clutch, was difficult if not impossible.
In fact, it felt a bit like that singular Gonzaga game in the 2006 NCAA Tournament. It wasn't quite clear how UCLA had won, and one had to piece together the final sequences to really understand it.
But after piecing it together, I'm going with Collison's two free throws with 2.5 seconds left as the play of the game. It's obvious, sure, but think about it: Standing alone at the foul line, nearly 12,000 pairs of eyes glued to him, down by two points, needing to make both shots to tie the game, after 39 minutes and 57.5 seconds of exhausting, intense basketball. A lot of players, a lot of people, would shrink from that moment, but Collison didn't, dropping them both in. No doubt about either one. The game was going to overtime.
It was the signature moment in the signature game of the 6-foot junior point guard's UCLA career. Collison was absolutely, undeniably clutch after halftime, scoring 19 points in the second half and overtime, in all manner of ways: Three pointers (including one on which he was fouled, for a rare four-point play), midrange jump shots, lay ups, tipping in his own missed shot despite being surrounded by Stanford's bigs…. whenever the Bruins needed a huge play, Collison seemed to deliver. He also added four assists, only two turnovers in 43 minutes, and a key steal in overtime. "Tremendous," said Coach Howland.
And when Stanford's Lawrence Hill made a short shot to put the Cardinal ahead, 63-61, with seven seconds left in regulation play -- and possibly give Stanford a share of the Pac-10 championship -- Collison got the inbounds pass, raced up the left side of the court, spun around his man, put up an eight-foot jump shot….and got stuffed by Hill.
Hill's block initially looked clean, in terms of getting all ball with his hand. But he also clearly bumped Collison's body, hard enough to make a difference. And the ref whistled it, sending Collison to the line to drain those icy freebies.
But it was insta-controversy. Sportscenter led off with it. The replays were shown far and wide, and debated heavily. The replay The Pac-10 director of officials later said it "wasn't a strong call." Many Stanford fans were irate. Message boards were lit up, as were the phone lines to radio shows.
So, was it really a foul?
Collison: "That was a complete block….we were just fortunate to get a foul on that call. I thought it was a make-up [call]." Later in the post game press conference, he smiled and thought better of it. "I was fouled," he said to much laughter.
Love was more diplomatic: "No comment," again with the smile.
"I thought he got fouled," said Howland to the press, but looked not entirely convinced. "You know, in the flow of the game, there are plenty of things officials miss, against us and for us, there was obviously, uh, you know I can't even say it….if I say something off the record, it won't work." He laughed. "The officials did a good job."
My own opinion? Could have gone either way. And if it had happened early in the game, no one gives it a second thought.
And though many Stanford fans pointed to that play as proof that they got jobbed -- and though if it had happened in reverse, Bruin fans would be bummed -- let me point out the following:
* Stanford led by 14 points early in the second half -- and couldn't finish.
* Stanford even led by 11 points with under six minutes left -- and couldn't finish.
* The Cardinal led by five points with under one minute left (and were the recipient of a gift from the basketball gods when Taj Finger banked in a mutt of an 18-foot jumper that even Bruin bricklayer Alfred Aboya would have cringed at) -- and couldn't finish.
* They let 6-foot-3 Westbrook slip by them on a missed free throw to grab a monstrous offensive rebound and lay it in with 50 seconds left, to pull to within one point, 60-59. It was arguably the play of the game, because it completed a quick four-point play for the Bruins, when they looked like maybe, finally, they were too far down with too little time left. Again, the Cardinal didn't finish the play.
* And when Brook Lopez had a chance to put Stanford back up by three points with 20 seconds left, he bricked the free throw, and Stanford fouled Westbrook on the rebound, sending the sophomore Bruin guard to the line to tie it up. After making one incredibly lucky free throw, and one routine one, Westbrook had done just that.
* Finally, Cardinal fans weren't complaining that Hill's short jumper with seven seconds left was counted despite the fact that he easily could have (should have?) been called for charging as he barreled into Love, but wasn't (hence, Collison later referring to his subsequent play being "a make-up call.")
So after all that, when near-hero Hill went up to challenge Collison in the waning seconds, in Pauley Pavilion, I'm going to play Devil's Advocate here: the smart play is for the big man to stand straight up, arms outstretched, and make the little man shoot over you. He makes it, fair play to him. But Hill went up, got a little body, and it was a split-second, hair-trigger play in a sold-out arena….one simply couldn't be that shocked when a ref blows a whistle for the home team.
It may not be fair, but in sports, when you're taking down the champ, you'd better leave no doubt.
Plus, no one has mentioned that UCLA would have still gotten the ball out of bounds with 2.5 seconds left and another chance to tie the game.
Stanford overall played an excellent game, and credit must go to its twin 7-foot stars, Brook and Robin Lopez, and to Coach Trent Johnson. The Lopezes are not only future NBA lottery picks, but unabashed big kids. Avid and devoted fans of all things Disney, Michael Jackson, and comics, they are gratefully profiled by sportswriters who never mind leading with the whole nerd/jock combo. I mean, how can you not respect a guy (Brook) who bangs in the paint, blocks a ton of shots, and without a trace of self-consciousness admits to Sports Illustrated that his favorite show is Sex And the City? Regardless of their likeability, these two can play. Brook is a top 5 NBA draft pick whenever he decides to come out, and Robin wouldn't be too far behind that, either.
In this game, Robin was efficient and effective (14 points on 6 of 8 shooting, 2 blocks). Brook finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but only shot 8 of 22 from the field, and missed a few shots down the stretch, some ill-advised. Not to mention the missed free throw.
So, in the final analysis, the Cardinal and the Lopezes left that sliver of doubt, and couldn't put the second-ranked Bruins away.
And as the regulation buzzer sounded, one had only to look at the two teams' collective body language to figure out the vibe in OT. Stanford heads were hanging, and coach Johnson still steaming and screaming about the foul call on Hill. UCLA players were celebrating, fists pumping, chests bumping, knowing they had escaped and had all the momentum.
And they were right. The teams initially traded baskets, but Collison again was the difference in overtime, with assists to Mbah a Moute (10 points, 11 rebounds, great defense on the Lopezes) and Westbrook (19 points, 0 turnovers) for dunks, and two lay-ups of his own. Final score: a deceptive 77-67 win.
More importantly, it gave UCLA its third straight conference title, and one more improbable comeback in a game the Bruins had seemingly little business winning.
"I'm so elated for our team, and our program," said Howland. "It took everything we had."
It often seems to, for these Bruins, which is one of the most frustrating and endearing things about them as they chase Banner #12, in this Winter of Love.
The game against ninth-place Cal two days later, an afterthought to start with, ended up being nearly as memorable (and in some ways, more) due to Shipp's shot.
It also didn't quiet any doubts about some of the things that have plagued UCLA: Poor first halves, inconsistent defense, no perimeter depth, susceptible to small, quick offensive teams.
Now, the regular season is over, the Pac-10 tournament awaits, along with a possible first-round match up with, of all teams, Cal.
And after that, the NCAA tournament, a likely #1 seed and with games in friendly Anaheim and Phoenix. And the ultimate challenge of trying to win six in a row.
The Bruins are clearly imperfect, clearly with some holes and limitations. But as this weekend proved, they may be the best team in the country at finding a way to win tough games, a quality that is never, ever a bad thing in trying to get to the Final Four.
"This is actually good for us, because this is how it's going to be," Howland said. "You lose, you're done."
That may be Coach Speak for "Guys, can we please have a blowout or two?" But we'll take him at face value.
And with all the drama of the post-season approaching, it's worth remembering something really important, best summed up by Howland in a post-game interview, referring to legendary Coach John Wooden's recent fall and hospitalization.
"Coach Wooden, we're thinking of you, we love you, get better."
Hm. Maybe it's not all winning or misery.