11:15 PM PST, January 30, 2013
All the right stuff seemed to be there Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion, when the Bruins took on the rival USC Trojans in men's basketball.
The recent $138-million upgrade to Pauley left it still shiny and new. The place was overwhelmed with the soft blue of Bruin colors, as it should be. It was UCLA's home game, UCLA's night. They promoted it as "Blue Out" night, and the faithful responded.
All the current essentials of game-night noise and hype in big-time basketball, pro or college, were rolled out by the Bruins. There was the cute 10-year-old girl who hit all the high notes and sang the National Anthem like a dream. There were the former Bruins stars, on the new big screen, reprising sentiments and axioms of John Wooden. They also had the tall blond with the shrill voice from Clipper games, alternately stirring the crowd and hawking products.
They even turned the lights out a lot. Gotta have that dramatic touch, you know.
How could this go wrong?
And then, at halftime, they poured it on. UCLA retired another number. Reggie Miller, who scored 2,009 points in four seasons as a Bruin and was a star in the NBA, addressed the crowd about UCLA tradition and legacy, and the evening felt even more right.
"It's a privilege to wear UCLA across your chest," Miller told the crowd.
Johnathan Franklin, UCLA football star, led the crowd in an eight-clap. All Bruins, all the time.
This, of course, was happening in a city with an abundance of basketball entertainment choices. UCLA doesn't just compete with USC and other colleges. This is the home of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, making it dunk city. The Clippers have alley-ooped their way into our hearts, into huge TV ratings and into the wallets of lots of fans who never opened them before for this city's little-brother team.
Obviously, all this takes a back seat to the Lakers and Kobe, as well as Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. There are more stars in purple and gold than on a Christmas tree, and it is a team well-established as the one to care about and the one to watch in Los Angeles.
Both the Clippers and the Lakers also played Wednesday. Although both were on the road, their start times overlapped Bruins-Trojans time, possibly playing into the decision of some fans whether to buy a ticket at Pauley.
For this one, Pauley was pretty full. For its opener in the new digs, it attracted 13,513. For its archrival Wednesday night, it got 12,821. Good crowd, good show. All the planets were aligned for a night of Bruin buzz.
And then it happened. UCLA lost. The air left the balloon quickly, almost as quickly as the fans left the stadium.
The game turned into an overtime thriller, with a frantic and exciting comeback by UCLA, behind at one point by 15 points. USC finally pulled out a 75-71 victory. But if excitement value is the only measure, then UCLA basketball had a successful night.
Not likely in this town.
Reality says this was a dagger in the program's heart — not without possibility of healing, but a dagger, nevertheless. The memory of John Wooden's 10 NCAA titles, and the ultimate excellence it created, will always define this program. Earlier in the season, the Bruins beat No. 7 Missouri, but that was merely redemption for an inexplicable loss to Cal Poly.
You can almost picture Wooden with his arms folded over his chest. Goodness gracious, Cal Poly.
Then, there was last weekend. UCLA beat No. 6 Arizona. Huge win. The hint of a spot back in the top 25 came with it. Then the Bruins lost to unranked Arizona State and hopes that had sprung eternal sprang another leak.
UCLA came into the USC game at 16-6 overall, 6-2 in the Pac-12. USC (now 9-13, 4-5) made headlines this season only with the recent firing of coach Kevin O'Neill.
Wednesday night's victory was conducted, rather efficiently, by interim Coach Bob Cantu, who is now 2-3. Ben Howland is in his 10th season, with a 224-102 record and three Final Fours.
Should this not have been a mismatch?
Miller, now an NBA network broadcaster, was asked about the basketball competition in this market and how UCLA can remain a big draw and a front-page story.
"The legacy and tradition of UCLA speaks for itself," he said. "If you build it, they will come."
How about winning?
"Oh, that certainly helps," Miller said. "That's always important."
Also important is the star factor, and UCLA certainly has one in Shabazz Muhammad, a left-handed freshman who has what it takes and who was the game's leading scorer with 22 points. But if he is, as expected, one and done — heading to the NBA after this season — then it won't be the first for Howland and the Bruins, who have suffered that kind of been-nice-knowing-you departure routinely. Remember Kevin Love?
UCLA's announcers talked afterward about how the Bruins have a week before they play again, a week to forget.
The danger is that the fans, with so much else to choose from, will too.
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