There was a moment during the UCLA-Oregon game Friday when it all crystalized. It was an epiphany for me.
It wasn't in the last four minutes when UCLA coughed up a 13-point lead. It was just a few minutes before that when UCLA was playing well, beating Oregon on almost every possession, and continuing to build on their lead.
It was then the entire Steve Lavin era crystalized in my mind. I had really been excited since the win over Arizona. Even with a little bit of objectivity, I didn't see a real roadblock for UCLA until it got to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs. After all, UCLA was probably more talented than every team they'd probably face until then, or at least as talented. And now, they were not only playing well, but Ray Young had been touched by fairy dust and was playing at that magical level. So, you had talent and magic. Oregon, USC or California, and then someone like Oklahoma State and Wisconsin in the first and second rounds of the NCAA tourney didn't really present a formidable threat.
Bu then there was the epiphany.
With about five minutes to play, UCLA is in command of the game. And it hit me: We're being set up. This is the perfect ending to the Lavin era script. The big win over the #1 team. Then coming out in the next game against a team that UCLA lost to by 30 points just two weeks ago, and really clearly owning the game. At the beginning of the game, after the first few possesions, it was clear UCLA would win the game. But then, with a comfortable lead with about five minutes left, I said to myself, "All they have to do is play smart the rest of the way and it's in the bag." Then I realized what I had just said – and that's when it hit me. It's not characteristic of a Lavin team to play smart. They can play inspired, or magical, but not smart. So, Oregon came out and pressed and UCLA looked confused and tight. I screamed at them to recognize the traps, but they threw the ball away, as if there was no way on Earth they could have expected Oregon, once getting to within 8 points with about three minutes left, to trap and press. The agony of watching, then, our poorly-coached team squander that lead without seemingly a way to combat it, was perhaps the most fitting way for Lavin to leave UCLA. He had brought us to the top of the roller coaster Thursday in beating Arizona, and we were still riding pretty high through the first 27 minutes or so of the Oregon game. But then, right on cue, we took a big dip on the ride, as we have so many times in the last seven years.
And we lost our stomachs.
But it felt good to believe for about 27 hours. It was a great feeling to look ahead over the next couple of weeks and really be able to project UCLA walking down a path to the Final Four. And it wasn't a delusional belief, but one that really wasn't too difficult to foresee.
But in Lavin fashion, that vision was snuffed out in a matter of four minutes.
And after I thought about it a while, it seemed really particularly fitting. In the Lavin era, the team had always taken us through many highs and lows, then gotten us pretty high toward the end of the season, to then end on a whimper. And that's exactly how the Lavin era came to a close Friday night. On a whimper.
In a way, it was good that it ended this way for my Bruin fan psyche. It reinforced another of those mental notes in my mind that you want to always remember about the season, and about Lavin. After a moment of grief when the vision was snuffed out, it provided a bit of solace in realizing that the roller coaster ride that was Steve Lavin basketball has been shut down. The carnival, and those carnys that run the ride, have been thrown out of town. No more will we lose our stomachs.
You would have thought there was no way for Lavin to properly say goodbye to UCLA on his way out of town. No way for him to really capture the essence of his tenure here. If they would have just lost to Arizona by another 35 points, that would have maybe been appropriate for the season, but not for the entire Lavin era. If they would have beaten Oregon the next day, it wouldn't have characterized the incredible swings of performance we've witnessed in the last 7 years. In 2001, losing to Cal by 29 points, and then, two days later, beating #1 Stanford. Blowing out Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2000, then getting smacked by Iowa State in the Sweet 16 a week later. The list is endless. This was just another chapter in that book. The last chapter.
And it was, really, if you take a moment and think about it, the best way for us to remember Steve Lavin.