This was the UCLA team -- focused, intense, hungry, and with just the slightest hint of a champion's arrogance -- that Bruin fans had been waiting to see again, this team that thumped Xavier, 76-57, on Saturday in the Western Regional final to make its third consecutive Final Four.
This was a team that recaptured some of its aura, its manic defensive intensity of the past two seasons, where every opponent's possession was like trench warfare, minus the bayonets and mustard gas.
This was the UCLA team that lived up to Coach Ben Howland's assessment ("My best team by far") and that had opposing coaches paying homage ("They're unique," said Xavier coach Sean Miller. "The things they are able to do on defense… are against all odds"). This was a team that at last played up to its potential, that didn't just squeak out a win against a lesser opponent, but asserted its will throughout the game and didn't let up.
And most importantly, this was the Bruin squad that looked like it really could hang Banner Twelve.
Bruin fans hadn't really that seen this UCLA team since midseason, when the Bruins crushed Washington State, its small-town challenger to the Pac-10 throne, at Pauley Pavilion in January (The Cougs, undefeated and ranked fourth, never really recovered from that reality check). A few weeks later, after UCLA embarrassed Arizona on ESPN's College GameDay, winning so easily that Bruin players giggled through the second half of that prime-time blowout, well, how could Bruin fans resist booking their flights to San Antonio?
But since that Arizona game, this team has played… well, as if it were a bit bored.
Not consciously. Not intentionally. But after looking absolutely locked in when they felt threatened or wanted to assert themselves, UCLA players (and their fans) have weathered a seven-week run of uneven play, uninspired first halves, crazy comebacks and tense, often miraculous finishes (Plus, let's be honest, a couple of referee bailouts). It's been an unbelievable run, alternating between panic attacks and joy on a regular basis -- but it hasn't exactly inspired confidence.
Most recently, this run included a second-round scare against Texas A&M (51-49), and a near-collapse of epic proportions against 12th-seeded Western Kentucky last Thursday in the Sweet 16. "We try to make it exciting for our fans," Howland joked after surviving the Hilltoppers' comeback. "We don't like them to get bored out there [watching] on TV."
Bored? No. Nervous? Yep.
I know the mantra in the tournament is "Survive and Advance." But at some point a team seeking a title has got to start playing like it belongs in the championship discussion. Doesn't it?
Well, after its 14th straight win – finally -- UCLA did exactly that.
It was no sure thing. Going into their Elite Eight showdown, the Musketeers had looked dangerous in dispatching Purdue and West Virginia the previous two games, and had to be feeling sanguine about their chances against the Bruins -- especially given UCLA's recent struggles.
But UCLA shifted into a gear that Xavier didn't possess, not just for a few minutes, but for most of the game. Xavier never led, while UCLA looked comfortable from the opening tip. The Bruins used a late first-half run to take a nine-point lead, and then blitzed the Musketeers early in the second half with a 14-0 run.
Love, as per usual these days, was the best player on the court, and was central to the key sequence. Up by 10 points early in the second half, Bruin guard Russell Westbrook made a steal, drove the length of the court, and was fouled while making the lay-up. He missed his free throw, but Love battled for the offensive rebound and passed to Darren Collison, who hit a long three-pointer. Suddenly UCLA was up 15. Love unveiled the rest of his arsenal on the next two possessions, hitting a left-handed bank shot from four feet away, then draining a three-pointer to make it 48-28. "He plays like he's 25 years old," said Musketeer Coach Miller.
And while Love deservedly won the Region's Most Outstanding Player (he also had 29 points and 14 rebounds against Western Kentucky), the X-factor that really energized the Bruins was Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.
The junior forward from Cameroon, having endured multiple injuries and shaky decision-making this season, seemed to spring out of a time capsule buried in April, 2006, because suddenly, sprained ankle and all, he looked like the fluid, instinctive player he was two years ago -- staying in the post, flying in from the foul line for offensive boards and put-backs, stripping the ball from opposing post players, guarding everyone in sight. He did take a couple of bad jump shots (it is 2008, after all), but, seriously, Luc recaptured the magic that he had as a freshman -- at least for a game.
He finished with a stat line reminiscent of 2006: 13 points, 13 rebounds (seven offensive), three assists, three steals, and only one turnover. "Incredible," said Howland.
Plus, after a fairly disastrous showing the previous game, UCLA's guards were also back to being their dominant selves. Westbrook (17 points, three steals) and Collison (19 points, five assists) totally outplayed their counterparts.
And UCLA looked to be back to being UCLA at its Howland Era best, when its defensive energy is frantic and precise all at the same time, and opponents can't seem to get comfortable, can't seem to initiate their offensive, or get their normal shots in rhythm.
Musketeers Coach Miller had a very interesting perspective after the game: "The thing that amazes me about UCLA's defense is they don't foul," he said. "I mean, they are physical, they blitz and trap every pick and roll you set, they trap the low post, they pressure the ball, they sometimes have four players on the court who are 6-7 or taller and they don't foul. I'm telling you, if you play as hard as they do and have the size that they do and the strategy -- and the offensive team can't put fouls on them -- it's really, really hard to score. "We got one foul on Kevin Love in the first four minutes and I got excited. If we'd have played 200 more minutes, he would not have picked his second foul up. He doesn't foul… UCLA's defense is obviously outstanding. The team that cracks it will probably be hitting on all cylinders… It will be interesting in San Antonio as the best of the best goes there."
That historic trip to Alamo country (only three other teams, Duke, Kentucky, and Michigan State, have made three consecutive Final Fours since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985) was almost derailed two days earlier in the Sweet 16.
Things started well, as the Bruins looked the part of a No. 1 seed, taking a 41-20 lead at halftime against Western Kentucky. Love was his usual dominant self, the Bruins' defense held the Hilltoppers to six baskets in the half, and Josh Shipp even hit a three-pointer for the first time in forever. "That's my boy!" yelled a grinning Love, as Shipp walked to the Bruin bench and was engulfed by relieved teammates.
Western Kentucky looked totally outclassed, and UCLA tried to put the game on cruise control in the second half. But suddenly, they started hitting potholes. Western Kentucky threw their full-court press at UCLA, and its ball handlers, Collison and Westbrook, didn't handle it. "We didn't read the plays right," said Collison. "Everybody was sped up." A couple of turnovers here, a few defensive lapses there, and suddenly it was a game. Western Kentucky rained down some treys. The Bruins' collective body language sagged. The lead dwindled to four points.
And when Collison fouled out, Westbrook and Shipp each had four fouls, there were still six minutes to play and Western Kentucky had all the momentum -- it was a doomsday scenario. UCLA, having masked its thin backcourt all season, was two more referee's whistles away (and those refs had been twitchy all game long) from having to save its season, its shot at the title, with no guards. I mean, seriously, who would've played if Shipp and Westbrook had fouled out? Walk-on Mustafa Abdul-Hamid? Seldom-used forward Nikola Dragovic? A hobbled Mbah a Moute? Like Katy said to Boone in Animal House, when faced with the prospect of his frat brothers raiding her parents' liquor cabinet, "It's too depressing to think about."
But UCLA, as it has all season, endured. Shipp and Westbrook avoided fouling out. And with the lead only four points, a Western Kentucky player missed a crucial three-pointer that would have cut it to one. Love scored on the ensuing possession, then Shipp hit a three-pointer to beat the shot clock (the play of the game, probably) to put the lead back to nine. Crisis averted. Bruins advance.
The key player in this one -- besides Love (29 points, 14 rebounds and an outrageous 65-foot inbounds pass to Shipp for a key lay-up during Western Kentucky's run) -- was reserve forward James Keefe.
Keefe, who at one point was going to redshirt this season because of shoulder injury, had the game of his Bruin career -- 18 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks. All his buckets came on lay-ups and dunks. He grabbed rebounds in traffic, helped shut down the Hilltoppers' posts, and looked big, and agile, and confident. He even hit his foul shots.
The former McDonald's All-American started slowly his first year and a half in Westwood -- he didn't look ready for the speed of the college game, nor did he get enough minutes to ever get comfortable -- but with this clutch performance, answered any lingering questions about his value, and potential.
"This is why I came back [from the redshirt]," he said.
Howland added: "I thought James had a career game… He wants to do what's best for the team, so it's kind of fun to see a guy who does the right things get rewarded by having the game of his life here, and helping his team get along to the next round."
One round later, after the dismantling of Xavier, UCLA had reached its penultimate goal for The Season: the Final Four.
And with that comes the weeklong national spotlight, with plenty of blue and gold strokes from the commentators, writers, and opposing coaches ("It's mind-boggling what Ben's done," said North Carolina's Roy Williams), and the excitement of reaching the sport's biggest stage, again.
The Bruins, while arguably not quite having the sheer physical talent of the other three squads in San Antonio, do have some advantages.
Number one, they have, in my opinion, the best player in the country in Love. What he's doing as a freshman is absolutely amazing.
Number two; they have Final Four experience that no other team does. Amazingly, Collison, Mbah a Moute and Aboya, all juniors, don't even know what a college season is that doesn't include a trip to the Final Four. Love is their only regular that hasn't played in at least one Final Four, and he seems fairly immune to pressure so far.
Plus, Bruin players have redemption on their minds from their losses to Florida those past two seasons. To a man, UCLA talked after Xavier about having unfinished business, about the sour taste of ending their season so close to the title the past two seasons.
Also, they have the experience of gutting out more close wins, when things aren't going perfectly, than any team in the country.
And most importantly, perhaps, they have Coach Howland. "We didn't make the Final Four three straight times for no reason," Collison said. "There's a lot that coaching has to do with it."
True. And Collison spoke for himself, his teammates, the coaching staff, and for most Bruin fans, with his assessment of the team's mindset: "We're not satisfied."