Seizing the moment, fulfilling a promise

The ball went from Darren Collison to Arron Afflalo to -- what?

He passed it away? With the game against USC on the line, UCLA's best player just passed it away?

"Didn't have a shot," said Afflalo. "Decided to wait."

So then the ball went from Afflalo to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to Michael Roll and -- c'mon!

The clock was ticking. A second consecutive Bruins loss was pending. Last weekend's heartbreak at Oregon was pounding.

And now, in words embarrassingly loud enough that others around me on press row could hear, I was shouting.

"Afflalo has to get the ball back. He has to take the shot. He wants this to be his team? This has to be his shot."

Then it happened. Just like it happened last spring against Alabama. Just like it must happen this spring against everybody.

Afflalo got the ball back. He took a couple of dribbles past the foul line and leaped. Lodrick Stewart was in his face. He shifted his body.

Then he shot. Finally, he shot. Fifteen feet of required credits. Fifteen feet of redemption.

It was a shot he failed to take last week at the end of the team's first loss in Oregon. It was a shot he openly wept about after the game. It was a shot he vowed he would never fail to find again.

It was a shot he swished.

With 4.7 seconds remaining, the ball went through the basket and the Bruins took the lead and, after one of the longest weeks of his life, Afflalo did the strangest thing.

Nothing. Didn't smile. Didn't cheer. Just kept glaring.

"If you want to put a face on this team," he said later, "I need to be that face."

On a rollicking Saturday at the semi-annual Los Angeles city ball, that face was stone cold.

You couldn't see the Trojans' faces, as they were covering their eyes.

UCLA 65, USC 64, same old, same old.

On a day when the Galen Center rocked and Taj Gibson rolled and Nick Young almost won the dang thing by making a three-pointer while falling into the first row, USC was tournament good.

"Those guys are twenty times better than they were last year," said Afflalo of the Trojans.

Tournament good, but still not good enough.

Not as long as the Bruins have Afflalo and the Trojans don't.

"What Arron did today, that showed big-time heart and guts," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.

Afflalo scored only two points in the first half, missed all four three-point attempts, scowled into the locker room with his team trailing by five.

"I kept saying, 'These are the games you build on, these are the experiences that can make you great,' " he said.

Then he walked back out into the raucous arena and parted the rolling sea of cardinal and gold with two consecutive three-pointers to start the second half.

"He's the veteran, he's the captain, he's the one we follow," Collison said.

But led by Gibson, the powerful freshman forward who may one day turn this place into the Taj Mahal, the Trojans kept pushing, increasing their lead to 10 points with 10:55 left.

UCLA did not have injured Josh Shipp. UCLA did not have its usual large group of fans that used to show up when the Trojans played at the Sports Arena. If there was ever a time for the Bruins to disappear, this would be it.

"But that's not how we are," Afflalo said. "That's not how we're coached."

And that's not how he leads.

With his clinging defense against Gabe Pruitt -- who scored only one basket in the final 15 minutes -- Afflalo methodically pushed his team back to within two points in the final five minutes.

He made two free throws to tie the score. He made a three-pointer to give the Bruins their first lead since early in the game.

Then, in those final minutes, Afflalo waited for something he has longed for since last spring.

That was when he removed himself from the NBA draft because, with Jordan Farmar leaving, he wanted to be the Bruins' leader.

I talked to him on the phone during that time, and he kept repeating that he was staying in college not only to improve his game, but to create a footprint.

"I want to leave some small mark on the greatest basketball program in the country," he kept saying.

His first chance to show that occurred last week, in the final critical possession of his team's first tough road game at Oregon, with the Bruins trailing by two points.

But Afflalo failed to touch the ball and the Bruins suffered their first loss of the season. Standing outside the locker room in the bowels of ancient McArthur Court after that game, Afflalo shed tears and made a promise.

"It's a mistake I'll never make again," he said. "No matter what, I'll find a way to get the ball in the end."

Fast forward to Saturday, with the Bruins suddenly trailing by a point after Young's four-point play with 23 seconds remaining.

"We had called a play for the ball to go to me," Afflalo said. "But then, when that look wasn't open, we had to figure another way to get the ball to me."

Oh, yeah, he was taking that last shot.

Said Collison: "No way he wasn't taking that shot. He's earned that shot."

Said Howland: "After last week, it was his shot all the way."

With that shot came not only the weight of the game, but the burden of last week's promise, and Afflalo knew it.

"Yeah, there was a lot more pressure on me because of what I said, but you have to learn to deal with that pressure," he said. "This is why I came back. I live for these moments."

And, at least this time, USC died from it, dissolving in remnants of a promise, the prelude to a footprint.

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Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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