UCLA solves road block
All the ghosts were in attendance. The bad memories from Texas. From Washington and Arizona State.
The big road games that UCLA had lost this season hovered around the Bruins on Saturday.
For one night at least, Darren Collison laid them to rest.
Driving to the basket again and again in the final minutes, the senior guard carried 22nd-ranked UCLA to perhaps its most impressive victory of the season, a 72-68 comeback win over California at a sold-out Haas Pavilion.
“I think we really fought together as a team,” said Collison, who scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half. “I think everybody was really understanding of what’s at stake.”
The Bruins knew several things going into this game.
They knew their opponent had a higher RPI ranking. They also knew that one of their preseason goals had fallen by the wayside. At least partially.
UCLA (22-7 overall, 11-5 in the Pacific 10 Conference) was shooting for a fourth consecutive Pac-10 regular-season title but when Washington defeated Arizona earlier in the day, the Huskies clinched at least a share of the conference championship.
The best the Bruins can hope for is a tie, which would happen only if they beat the Oregon schools this week and Washington loses to Washington State next Saturday.
“It would be huge, but we’ve had a few mishaps,” swingman Josh Shipp said of the losses that stand between his team and another title.
“For us right now,” he said, “it’s just about getting momentum going into the [NCAA] tournament and trying to get as high a seed as we can.”
The first step took place in front of an ESPN television audience and a raucous crowd of 11,877 at Cal.
It was a wild and occasionally sloppy affair from the start, Cal taking an early lead fueled by the shooting of guards Patrick Christopher and Jerome Randle.
UCLA, meanwhile, was squandering opportunities by missing layups and free throws and fumbling balls away in close proximity to the basket.
But Coach Ben Howland threw Jrue Holiday and Malcolm Lee at Christopher, eventually slowing him down, and just as they had done Thursday at Stanford, the Bruins chipped away at the early deficit.
They got a big boost with three minutes left in the first half when forward Nikola Dragovic drove to the basket and was grabbed from behind by Cal’s Theo Robertson.
Dragovic made the basket and two free throws for an intentional foul. Then, with UCLA getting possession, swingman Michael Roll made a three-pointer.
“It just really takes the wind out of your sails,” Cal Coach Mike Montgomery said.
The seven-point swing put UCLA back in the game -- down by 34-32 at halftime -- despite shooting only 38% for the first 20 minutes. As Montgomery put it, “The reality is that we should have been up a bunch in the first half.”
But this game presented other challenges for the Bruins.
First of all, Cal (21-8, 10-6) runs an offense so complex that, the day before the game, UCLA practiced defending dozens of offensive sets.
On a more basic level, the Golden Bears entered the weekend as the nation’s best three-point shooting team, making 44.2% from long range. Randle and Robertson, among the top five three-point shooters in the Pac-10, showed what they could do on their way to 20 and 14 points, respectively.
So the second half was a game of runs, with UCLA sprinting to a five-point lead, then Cal scrambling back.
That’s when Collison took command.
In a 98-second span that began with 7:48 left, he drove to the basket for three scores, including a three-point play that put UCLA up by nine.
“He was just aggressive tonight, that was the bottom line,” Shipp said. “When we needed him to get a basket, he went and got it.”
There were other clutch shots from Holiday and Dragovic. Walking off the court, Howland raised both fists toward a contingent of UCLA fans in the corner of the arena.
“National television. A sold-out crowd. A very good Cal team,” Collison said. “That’s a very good win.”