UCLA transformed the impossible into the inevitable Monday night, reclaiming the throne it last held 20 years ago with a performance that surpassed the grandeur of its past.
So high, the wrenching loss of Tyus Edney only made the Bruins go faster, and the presence of John Wooden only made them calmer.
So high, all the ghosts and whispers and dreams that have followed this team were left trailing behind, like vapor in the wind.
Capping a restless, two-decade journey of sprawling emotions, miniature triumphs and shattering failures, the Bruins played themselves into history by riddling Arkansas, 89-78, to capture the school’s record 11th national title before 38,540 at the Kingdome.
“This will go down as the guttiest champion,” senior center George Zidek said. “Everybody says the first one (in 1964) was the guttiest, the small team, but we won the national title with a six-man rotation against Arkansas, who pressed all the time.
“That was serious gut-check time. I’m so proud of us, I can’t tell you.”
Edney, the legs and punch of this team all season, sprained his right wrist Saturday against Oklahoma State, did not participate in early warm-ups Monday and shot a lifeless air ball from five feet away in his only pregame shot.
Edney was determined to at least start the game, but the wrist watch ended for good when he was replaced by backup Cameron Dollar 2:37 into the game after it became clear that he was playing one-handed against a deep Arkansas team eager and able to feast on his weakness.
“Sometimes these things work in your favor,” UCLA Coach Jim Harrick said, “but I would like to give emotion or divine intervention a little credit. I’d like to give our players a lot of credit.”
“I still don’t know how we won this game,” said assistant coach Mark Gottfried, still teary on the floor after the presentation of the national championship trophy.
Despite some predictable errors, Dollar held fast against the Razorback defense, freshman guard Toby Bailey screamed through open lanes for 26 points and nine rebounds, and Final Four most valuable player Ed O’Bannon remained unshakable, scoring a game-high 30 points and grabbing 17 rebounds.
Dollar, who led the Bruins (31-2) earlier this season in a victory against USC when Edney was out with flu, scored six points and had eight assists and three turnovers.
Meanwhile, UCLA’s defense kept the Razorbacks on their heels and struggling--keyed by Zidek’s subtle job against last year’s Final Four MVP, Corliss Williamson, who went scoreless for a 33-minute stretch and made only three of 16 shots.
“We just played out of ourselves today,” sophomore forward Charles O’Bannon, one of four Bruins to play 36 or more minutes, said in the Bruins’ locker room. “We played to a level that most people didn’t think we were capable of.
“If you were to tell America that Tyus was only going to play one or two minutes and we were going to win by 10 or more, I think you would’ve been laughed at.
“But we have a team that has a heart as big as this room, and we showed it tonight.”
UCLA, playing emotionally and at an amazing pace, fought back from a 12-5 deficit, and went back and forth with the Razorbacks the rest of the half, which ended with UCLA ahead, 40-39, mostly because of Arkansas’ 13 turnovers.
Then, in the second half, the Bruins began to sow the seeds of their 19th consecutive victory, with Bailey crashing the offensive glass and pounding down dunks and Williamson struggling to even hit the rim.
With 15:30 left in the game, UCLA led, 55-45, after a Bailey slam triggered by a full-court Ed O’Bannon pass. The Razorbacks inched closer as the game wound down, then pulled within three, 67-64, with 5:22 to go.
“I was mad,” Ed O’Bannon said. “They had the momentum, they were fired up. But at that point, we came together, and we made sure we wouldn’t fold. And we didn’t.”
Instead, UCLA outscored Arkansas, 22-13, with O’Bannon dominating the suddenly listless Razorbacks on the baseline. Overall, UCLA outrebounded Arkansas, 50-31, and took down nine more offensive rebounds.
“We don’t have a Walton, we don’t have an Alcindor, we don’t have a Goodrich, and tonight, we didn’t have an Edney,” Charles O’Bannon said. “But we have a team of guys with big hearts, of faith.
“We knew we’d be successful.”
Said his older brother, Ed: “We were sitting up watching TV last night, ESPN, and they’re killing us, ‘This team has no chance, they’re no good and they’re going to get bullied.’
“And we came out with six players, my man on the bench cheering us on and we won by 11 points. We wanted to make sure the whole world knew we were the best team in the country, simple as that.”
With the Razorbacks throwing up wild three-point attempts, UCLA pulled away, and by the 1:25 mark, after Charles took a full-court pass from Ed and threw it down to give UCLA a 81-71 lead, it was countdown time.
When the buzzer sounded, the Bruins converged at half-court, celebrated for a moment, then knelt around Ed O’Bannon in silence and thanks.
“There’s not going to be a moment like that for the rest of my life,” Zidek said.
And this UCLA Bruin team, which survived a second-round battle with Missouri only because of Edney’s full-court run and basket at the buzzer, and which was badgered about last year’s first-round loss to Tulsa until their answers were by rote and testy, ascended into history.
Its national championship banner will ascend to the Pauley Pavilion rafters, one of 11.
“To me, we could be the worst team out of all 11,” Ed O’Bannon said. “But we’re one of them. So I don’t care.”
History will, and it will be kinder than that.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* DOLLAR TO THE RESCUE
The statistics won’t show it, but he played the game of his life. C6
* FRESH FRESHMAN
Toby Bailey always wanted to be a star. Now he is one. C8
* BIG LETDOWN
Razorbacks’ Williamson makes only three of 16 shots and is outmuscled by Zidek. C9
* THE REAL MVP?
Tyus Edney got the Bruins there, but he couldn’t go any further. C10