UCLA shows it is down, but not out
This time, Darren Collison made the play.
This time, Eric Maynor did not.
In the final, howling moments of a desperate early Friday morning here, a first-round NCAA tournament game rested in a sweaty tango of two of college basketball’s recently infamous March dancers.
Defending the ball was Collison, the UCLA guard haunted by a torching from Memphis’ Derrick Rose in last season’s national semifinals.
Shooting the ball was Maynor, the Virginia Commonwealth guard buoyed by a game-winning shot from two seasons ago that dropped a first-round stunner on Duke.
Maynor went up. Collison went up. The shot went up.
After an instant that seemed like an eternity, UCLA stayed up, the ball grazing the front of the rim and dropping harmlessly away to give the Bruins a 65-64 victory that left them too exhausted to celebrate or cheer.
Said Collison, shaking his head: “I’m just glad he missed.”
Said Coach Ben Howland, arching his eyebrows: “You know, I’m just glad he missed.”
Said a befuddled Maynor: “I’m not shooting to miss.”
And so, dripping palms and all, the Madmen of March delivered a message to the President of the United States.
Veto the idea that a school can instantly plunge from three consecutive Final Fours to One and Done.
Veto the idea that a Howland team will lose an NCAA tournament game it should win.
Veto fairy tales, turning this one into a harried tale.
President Obama picked Virginia Commonwealth in his tourney pool, but UCLA impeached that selection with trademark tourney defense and toughness.
“We showed them,” said Collison simply. “We showed them.”
Obama, you see, wasn’t the only one. Rolling into town as fallen stars staggering far from home, the Bruins took the Wachovia Center floor as little more than bracket bait.
They had the higher seeding, but folks thought they had the lower energy. They were the bigger school, but folks thought they had the smaller drive.
So lots of smarty-pants people picked VCU, and when the Bruins began blowing an 11-point lead in the final eight minutes, it looked like a good pick.
Then, despite having less talent and depth than in recent years, the Bruins showed they still beat with that thumping Howland ticker.
“We listened to what everyone said, and we let it go,” said Collison. “But it got into our heads. It stayed in our heads. And tonight we used it as motivation the entire game.”
It went from their heads to their hands, and sneakers, and stares.
Their lead cut to three points in the final three minutes, Collison coolly drove for a layup.
Their lead cut to one point moments later, Jrue Holiday made a brilliant pass to Alfred Aboya, who was fouled and converted two free throws, making UCLA a perfect 14 for 14 from the foul line in the second half.
“If we’re going to lose,” said Aboya, “we’re going to lose fighting.”
Then, their lead cut to one point again, Collison’s shot was blocked and Nikola Dragovic threw up a wild three-point attempt and VCU had the ball with 13 seconds left.
At this point, the Bruins could have collapsed.
But at this point, they showed what three consecutive Final Fours mean.
The grimacing coach and his groaning players showed that even though they have lost a step from their recent greatness, they haven’t lost everything.
On the final in-bounds play, the Bruins double-teamed Maynor, causing a few precious seconds to tick off the clock.
Then, downcourt, Josh Shipp jumped a screen that caused Maynor to work even harder, eventually causing him to force the 18-foot shot before he was ready.
These are the reasons UCLA has had such March success under Howland. These are the things that were so frustratingly absent for so much of this winter.
“Did you see our defense, how it was different?” said Aboya. “We do things today that we didn’t do during the season. It’s like we know it’s do or die.”
On Thursday, it was do.
On Saturday, well, I’ve already written that it will be the other option.
While I didn’t agree with the president on his VCU pick, I have already picked Big East power Villanova to beat the Bruins in the second round, and nothing that happened here Thursday could change that notion.
First, it’s a Villanova home game. As UCLA heard during the Wildcats’ first-round victory over American earlier in the evening, that means the building will be full of loud and boisterous Villanova fans.
“A true road game in the NCAA tournament,” Howland said dryly.
Second, it’s also a good Villanova matchup game.
The Wildcats have four guards who can run the Bruins ragged -- “It’s like Maynor, only more of him,” said Aboya.
The Wildcats also have a tough overall defense that forced American into nine consecutive missed field goals in the second half.
Plus, after falling behind American by 10 points at halftime, Villanova will be taking nothing for granted.
“There’s going to be some matchup issues,” admitted Howland. “We’ve got to address them.”
At least they’ve already addressed the notion that, while this feels like a very different March, they still have the pieces of the same old UCLA.
For one breathtaking night, it was just enough.
Follow Plaschke on Twitter at twitter.com/latbillplaschke