They saved the best test for last.
On the eve of the NCAA tournament pairings announcement, with their two most productive forwards sidelined, the UCLA Bruins beat back exhaustion, the possibility of an emotional lull, and, along the way, the Washington State Huskies, 82-71, on Saturday before 11,966 at Pauley Pavilion.
Their fabulous reward? The 17th-ranked Bruins hope and expect it's a No. 3 seeding in the West Regional bracket--possibly with the first two games in the familiar environment of Tempe, Ariz.--setting them up for an upstart run in defense of their title.
"I remember--a lot of the guys don't--but I remember my first year, we lost to Oregon our last game of the league," said junior forward Charles O'Bannon, who scored a game-high 24 points, 16 in the first half.
"And because of that, we got shipped off to [the Midwest region to play] Tulsa, and if we'd won that [Oregon] game, we probably would've stayed in the West and not lost our first game.
"That's why this game was so important."
Though the computer rankings and polls suggest UCLA could end up with a No. 4 seeding, Bruin Coach Jim Harrick said he thought the team's case, by winning the Pacific 10 by at least two games, was strong for a better position.
"Yeah, I expect the third seed in the West," Harrick said. "I'd be very, very, very disappointed if it's anything but that."
Said forward Kris Johnson, who said he "tweaked" his back while reaching for the ball: "[No. 3 is] where we want to be. And in Tempe, not Albuquerque [the other sub-regional in the West]. I don't want no Albuquerque, with the altitude and all that. We don't care where we go, but Tempe's a Pac-10 city."
The Bruins breezed into last year's tournament with a 25-2 record and riding a 13-game winning streak. This year, after all the weird bumps and turnover woes and stumbles, UCLA heads to the dance with the same conference record, a modest four-game win streak and hearing predictions that it will be bounced out after one or two tournament games.
"Everybody's talking about an early exit for us," freshman center Jelani McCoy said. "And we love to hear that, we're thriving on that. We're going to prove all that wrong.
"I'd take a 13th seed, I'll take whatever, because we're planning on knocking some teams off."
Saturday, all-purpose forward J.R. Henderson dressed, but sat out his second consecutive game as he recovers from strep throat symptoms. Then, five minutes into the game, Johnson went out for good.
Johnson returned to the bench after getting treatment in the locker room, and said he will be ready to play in the first round. Henderson is expected to return to practice this week.
But against the Cougars, who still had faint hopes of earning an at-large NCAA berth with a victory, UCLA showed that, at least for one game, and at least when it gets grueling efforts out of McCoy, O'Bannon, Toby Bailey, Cameron Dollar and senior Kevin Dempsey (nine assists) and a huge defensive stand in the second half, it could survive without them.
UCLA, which finished the regular season at 23-7 and with its second 16-2 Pac-10 record in a row, shot 63.3% from the field, the sixth time this season the Bruins have shot better than 60%. And the Bruins held the Cougars to 37.5% shooting (12 for 32) in the second half--while committing only six turnovers in the final half.
"This team loves to win, and we're not going to bow down and play soft just because we're missing some players," said Bailey, who had 17 points and his second consecutive solid outside shooting day after a protracted slump.
Said O'Bannon, who was stuck guarding 6-foot-9 Mark Hendrickson most of the game: "It would have been very, very easy for us to just give up, because that's a good excuse for losing--we didn't have two of our best players."
UCLA survived, partly because the sporadically used Dempsey, who got the start in his last Pauley Pavilion appearance, played a career-high 34 minutes and ably filled in for Henderson on the high post.
"That's some pretty big shoes to fill," Dempsey said. "J.R.'s a great player. But his game is sort of similar to mine, because we play all five positions. I knew I'd have to get in there and pass it to the open man.
"It's a great way to close it up after four years."
Other Bruins talked about how relieved they were to finish up the regular season and get on to the tournament--and prove that despite all the problems this team has experienced, UCLA is a team to fear.
"In the back of our minds," Bailey said, "it's always been about the tournament."