BILL PLASCHKE

A month when the Bruins must seize the day

Forget the frenzy of postseason play in March. UCLA must make it February Madness to make next month relative, and possibly save Ben Howland's job as coach.

February Madness. Larry Drew II dribbles to his left, throws up a jumper, it drops down just as the backboard lights up, glowing red, dancing blue, swish, buzzer, game.

February Madness. Pauley Pavilion is half full but roaring loud, fans bouncing in a giant mob, Drew disappearing into a mass of teammates, new month, last gasp.

February Madness. It once carried Ben Howland's UCLA teams to three consecutive Final Fours. It must now save his job.

The Bruins won their first game of their coach's most historically revealing month Thursday with a 59-57 victory over Washington on Drew's chaos-causing buzzer beater.

They won even though Bill Walton was questioning them on television, Washington was obliterating them on the boards, and many of their own students were abandoning them, with empty seats that could have been filled for this 6 p.m. start by simply walking across campus.

And, oh yeah, even more amazing than any of that, they won with Drew taking the final shot on a final possession in which Howland did not use his final timeout.

"This is perseverance," said Howland, and he knows this month is going to require exactly that, every game, if his Bruins have any chance to dance before he disappears.

February is when Howland's players, having endured several months of his tough love, traditionally either buy in or check out. February is when Howland's grip either empowers or suffocates.

During Howland's three Final Four seasons, his teams went 18-4 in February. During their most recent two seasons in which they didn't make the tournament, they were 8-8 in February.

In 2006, February is when Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo learned to play together, the Bruins once outscoring three consecutive opponents in the second half by 66 points combined.

In 2007, February is when Darren Collison first discovered himself while leading the Bruins over three ranked teams.

In 2008, February is when Russell Westbook went 22 of 35 in a three-game stretch while Kevin Love brought the Bruins back on to the national stage with a double-double in a 22-point win over Arizona.

"February is huge, we're coming down to the wire here," said Howland, and that wire is a tightrope.

The Bruins have five games left his month and probably need to win four of them to reach 22 wins and ensure themselves a spot in the tournament before embarking on the dangers of March.

That might be enough to keep Howland employed here, but who knows? Some fans probably hope it is not. Some fans, much like those who once cheered against Steve Lavin, hope the Bruins lose now so they can benefit from a coaching change later.

If Thursday's victory was any indication, Bruins players aren't among those. A week after a demoralizing loss to USC that could have ended their season, they lost the rebounding battle by 10 and shot a season-low 33%, but goodness, they played hard.

Shabazz Muhammad sank just eight of 23 shots but he was flying everywhere, stealing rebounds and winning 50-50 balls and finally starting to talk the Southern California talk.

"We've got some good karma," he said.

Drew, the team's only senior, not only had the game-winner, but a giant midcourt steal moments earlier that led to a Muhammad dunk.

"It just shows if you just stick with it, keep playing as hard as you can, have some heart, good things can happen at the end of the day," said Drew.

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