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No Noose Is Good News for a Spring-Loaded Coach

How unbelievable, unthinkable, unfathomable, unimaginable.

How perfect.

Steve Lavin slipped the noose from his neck Thursday, then laughingly used it to strangle fate, misfortune and the top basketball team in the nation.

His last breath was a scream. His last walk was a dance. His last meal was a food fight.

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What may be his last victory was his greatest.

It was rank UCLA 96, top-ranked Arizona 89, in a Pac-10 tournament opener so delicious it required overtime, with an outcome so incredible Steve Lavin’s last words were a howl.

“It was like a bullfighter in a ring out there,” he said in the Staples Center tunnel afterward, his eyes still wide. “And now the bullfighter has at least one more fight.”

Are you really watching this again? Are we really writing this again?

A 15-point comeback inspired it. A three-pointer with 4.9 seconds left in regulation tied it. The first five points in overtime clinched it.

A just-short-of-suffocating bear hug between Lavin and boss Dan Guerrero certified it.

As being completely insane.

“This is just like, crazy,” said T.J. Cummings, who scored 18 points and led the team in understatement. “All I’ve been through this year, as far as adversity is concerned, I’ll be set for the rest of my life.

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“You love it. And you hate it. And you love it.”

Does anybody who has watched Steve Lavin for the last seven years not understand that?

We know that tournament time affects Lavin as darkness affects a vampire. He comes alive. He demands respect. He spins on those who have spent the winter pursuing him and scares them clear into next season.

But this year is different.

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This year, there is no next season.

Lavin is done. His back is not against the wall, because there is no wall. He can’t save his job, because there is no job.

For the first time in seven years, Lavin began tournament time essentially fired, so fired that he has spent the last couple of months joking about it while his team laughed its way to eighth place.

“I mean, c’mon, it’s been no mystery,” said Ray Young, the author of the tying three-pointer. “We all knew what was going on out there.”

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But a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows. For Lavin’s last speech, he decided to talk about something else.

He talked about those past tournament shockers and continuing the tradition.

He talked about endings, not for him, but for his two seniors, and how they should make it special, no matter what happened to him.

His players, for perhaps the first time since last spring, listened.

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“I wanted to go out strong,” said Jason Kapono, who scored a game-high 26 points. “If the balls were falling, I was going to keep shooting. If the balls weren’t falling, I was going to keep shooting.”

As for Young, well, his game mirrored his decision on that three-pointer.

“If that ball was coming to me, that ball was going up,” he said.

Is it any wonder, then, that the Bruins took the floor with an intensity unmatched this season, their coach teaching them as he hasn’t taught in months?

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“Tell you what, coach really worked this game,” said Cummings.

It helped that top-ranked Arizona did not.

The Wildcats blew off the pregame interview sessions Wednesday, then blew off accountability Thursday, strolling around as if this were merely a pre-NCAA tournament scrimmage instead of its conference’s most important weekend.

This team is going to win a national title?

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Not with Luke Walton in a fog, not with Jason Gardner making exactly two of 20 bombs.

“We just need to get back home,” said Lute Olson, the Arizona coach.

Yes, please, and hurry.

Meanwhile, the Bruins initially gave fans twice their money’s worth, then lousy guard play ate up their first-half surge and left them with a 15-point deficit with 14:15 remaining in the game.

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It was nice, but it was over, and memories of earlier 35- and 36-point losses to the Wildcats were suddenly filling the room.

“I’m sure fans were going, ‘Oh no, here it comes, another 35-point blitz,” said Kapono. “But we showed our grit.”

Who’d have thought? Kapono made a three-pointer, Young and Andre Patterson drove through the middle for layups, the Bruins kept delivering blows to the head and body.

Then, with the Bruins trailing, 71-66, there occurred a Steve Lavin signature moment.

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Folks in Michigan, Maryland and Cincinnati can tell you about those moments. Those from Stanford and Kansas and Duke remember those moments.

All of Lavin’s great victories contain at least one. So it happened again Thursday, this time with Cummings driving the lane ... and having his shot blocked.

“I saw the ball go flying away, and I was down, but all I could hear was Coach Lavin shouting, ‘Get back, get back, get back,’ ” Cummings said.

So he hustled downcourt and, moments later, swatted Gardner’s shot into the seats.

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“A block for a block,” Cummings said with a smile.

On the Bruins’ next possession, Dijon Thompson made a three-pointer and a surge began that did not end until much later, when a victorious but exhausted Young was shaking his head on the interview podium.

“It’s rough being a coach and player at UCLA,” he said. “It’s rough, very rough.”

Yet for all of Steve Lavin’s problems, his legacy will be that on certain spring nights, he could make being a UCLA player very special.

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Up next, Oregon, which recorded a 31-point victory over UCLA just two weeks ago, and that means everything.

Or nothing. Or something. We give up.

“They’re waiting to put a crown on you,” said Bill Walton.

“Wait till tomorrow,” said Steve Lavin.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com


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