Their 1999, what has around these parts become the year of living dangerously, ended the only way the UCLA Bruins seem to know anymore, what with having spent more time in recent days going down to the wire with people watching than Dick Clark.
Colorado State gave way to South Florida, which gave way to Pepperdine, which Thursday night gave way to Purdue, just in time for Jason Kapono to go the length of the court for a layin with 1.1 seconds remaining to give UCLA a 55-53 victory over the Boilermakers before 10,290 at Pauley Pavilion.
Pardon the Bruins if they are either frazzled or calm about it, having either worn themselves out with such finishes or grown accustomed. It has been that kind of four-game run in late December, with two of the outcomes decided by two points, another by one, and one by five points in overtime.
They are 8-2 heading into 2000.
“It’s tough,” said Rico Hines, who took advantage of foul trouble in the backcourt to play a season-high 26 minutes. “I think we’re trying to give the fans heart attacks or something.”
Said Coach Steve Lavin, who beat his mentor, Gene Keady, in the first meeting between the schools since the NCAA semifinal in 1980: “It’s no secret to anyone in Los Angeles. We’ve got a lot of deficiencies. But we’re finding a way to win.”
The 23rd-ranked Bruins did this time despite losing a 10-point lead from the first half, Earl Watson to fouls with 3:34 remaining, the second consecutive game he has been forced out early, and even the lead with three minutes left. But they still had a 53-53 tie with 7.2 seconds left and the ball.
They also had Kapono, already with 17 points to his credit. At the far baseline, Matt Barnes flipped the ball in to Kapono, who dribbled down the left sideline, saw that no defender came to cut him off, then crossed half court and shifted to the middle.
He never stopped. Kapono got to the top of the three-point circle, then to the free-throw line and then all the way down the lane, continuing until he let go a couple feet from the basket.
“When I came into the lane, I was thinking, ‘Take it in,’ ” Kapono said. “I noticed the guys guarding Dan [Gadzuric] and Jerome [Moiso] stayed on them. The only thing I could do was shoot. So that’s what I did.”
The recent problems on the court--a loss to Colorado State, a close win over South Florida, a close win over Pepperdine two nights earlier when the Waves would have had at least overtime if not for a missed call that went in UCLA’s favor--were compounded early against Purdue (8-4), somewhat unexpectedly. Billy Knight’s decision the day before to transfer because of a lack of playing time does not figure to have any severe long-term effects, although a team that struggles this much against zone defenses can always use an outside shooter, but the absence of just one guard became an issue early Thursday.
The Bruins did have Ryan Bailey, despite a flare-up of the foot problems that plagued him early in the season. It would have been a critical development if he had not played, because of what happened when Watson and Ray Young did play.
Young got his second foul with the game just 3:20 old. Watson, the other starter in the backcourt, picked up No. 2 with 9:29 gone. Bailey came in. Hines came in, then played 15 minutes in the first half, two less than his average for an entire game. It helped to have Kapono, even when he stayed at forward, because of his ballhandling skills.
That wasn’t the end of the problem. The Bruins had 10 players available, but one (Sean Farnham) hadn’t played in nine days and another (Brandon Brooks) had a single appearance of 2:51 to his credit, and then two starters got in early foul trouble. Make it three--Gadzuric had to come out with 2:22 left in the first after getting his second.
Either playing it daring or because he had few other options, Lavin sent Watson back in with 4:10 remaining. Watson survived until halftime without any additional problem.