UCLA collapsed on purpose this time. Collapsed with pride. Collapsed on Michigan’s Robert Traylor with defensive fervor. Then almost collapsed in exhaustion.
Third-seeded Michigan had the taller, stronger players and the deeper roster in Sunday’s South Regional second-round game. Michigan made the last, late explosion toward victory.
Michigan leaned hard, and nobody leans harder than the Wolverines.
But, in a feverish, fine-tuned display of passion and basketball, the sixth-seeded Bruins swarmed Michigan’s inside game, shredded its defense and stayed standing when the Wolverines came roaring back.
Then, in the final minute, with Michigan straining to avoid defeat, UCLA let Kris Johnson wander to the free-throw line eight times, 15 fateful feet from home, to either elongate or end this elastic season.
After missing successive free throws for the first time this season, Johnson made eight in a row to seal UCLA’s exhausting 85-82 victory before 19,423 at the Georgia Dome.
“That was pretty hard,” Johnson said of his first try after the two misses. “I was thinking, ‘Oh man, don’t miss three in a row. We’re up one, we need two. Please don’t miss this!’
“I shot it, and it went in and then I got on a roll. I willed them into the basket.”
It has been a blank stare of a UCLA season, full of suspensions and misdirected answers, haphazard play and failure against higher-regarded teams.
But Johnson, who led all scorers with 25 points, left the court Sunday with a different response: a hard, angry glare, daring anybody to doubt the Bruins now.
Against the odds, in the biggest game of the season against the biggest foe of the season, UCLA finally found the answers.
The Bruins survived the temporary loss of point guard Baron Davis because of a knee injury, the permanent loss of center Jelani McCoy a month ago and a Michigan rally that brought the Wolverines within one point, 67-66, with five minutes to play.
“When Michigan [rallied], we stayed in it,” Johnson said. “We didn’t think, ‘Oh, here they come, they’re about to kill us,’ like what’s happened in the past with us.
“We just said, ‘OK, keep playing.’ And that’s what we did. I think the main factor was the pride of the three seniors. We wanted to get past the second round, like some people in the media said we couldn’t do.”
Once again, UCLA was lifted and carried by Johnson, who also had two huge late defensive rebounds; Toby Bailey, whose dominant early play triggered UCLA’s quick jump to a double-digit lead; and J.R. Henderson, who made two early three-point basket to open up the Wolverine defense and survived the mayhem of Michigan’s collection of big men.
“I thought today really represented their whole careers here,” Lavin said of the seniors.
“Man, I was tired,” Henderson said of his 13-point, eight-rebound, 38-minute performance. “I was waiting for that [first and only] substitution for about five minutes.”
Even though UCLA shot 54.9% (28 for 51) and made a season-high nine three-point baskets (two by Henderson), their defense, a problem area all season, was where the Bruins won.
Traylor, a 300-pound center who has single-handedly squashed lesser teams, was the focus of the defense. UCLA Coach Steve Lavin designed a quick-footed zone that attacked Traylor and held him to 17 points, most of those coming after offensive rebounds.
“I took eight shots, and I think Maceo [Baston] took something like seven,” Traylor said. “That right there shows a lot about their defense.”
Even as the Bruins harried Traylor, usually reliable outside shooter Louis Bullock couldn’t find easy shots, started pressing and basically shot the Wolverines into trouble, making only seven of his 27 shots, and only two of 14 from three-point distance.
“When we started off swarming the middle, like we did against Traylor, and spotting up on the shooters, I knew we had the right mind set today,” Bailey said.
Said Bullock, a 47.2% three-point shooter this season: “I just picked the worst time to have a day where I couldn’t hit the shots I’ve been hitting all year.”
With Michigan (25-9) struggling early, UCLA grabbed the lead with 12:46 left in the first half and never let it go, despite four first-half three-pointers by Michigan guard Robbie Reid, who had six for the day.
By halftime, the Bruins (24-8) had a 45-34 lead, and the only question was when Michigan would make its run.
The runs came in waves, but, with freshmen Travis Reed and Earl Watson suddenly making key shots and key defensive plays, the Bruins fended them off, including a final rush that was keyed by Wolverine Jerod Ward.
“Some people feel we’ve failed no matter what we do, so it does seem like what we do is never enough to make everybody happy,” said Bailey, who had his fourth consecutive inspiring performance: 19 points, five rebounds, six assists and three steals. “So something like this proves something to ourselves and proves everybody wrong.
“But, personally, I feel as long as we play our hardest, we have nothing to embarrassed about. That’s all I asked the guys. And that’s what they gave. I didn’t want anybody to think back and say, ‘I wish I could’ve dove one more time or set one more screen.’ Nobody has to say that tonight.”
What UCLA displayed more than anything was its pride and its wounded feelings at being disregarded as a title-contender this season, the Bruins said.
“A lot of people say we’re prima donnas, that we win games only because we can jump high or run fast,” Johnson said. “But people don’t know that it’s our hearts that are the strongest things about us, and the will to win at any cost.”
Was there a sense of redemption?
“A little bit of it,” Johnson said, “a little bit. It was a great win. But we can’t feel satisfied with this; you know, just sit around and tell ourselves it was the greatest game of our lives, we just beat Michigan. We’ve got to come right back against Kentucky.”