Bruins lead at halftime, 35-25

Go down the checklist in Darren Collison’s head.

As the final seconds ticked away, he had to scramble to stay in front of his man. Had to keep from getting faked off his feet. Had to avoid committing a foul.

In short, he had to keep the other team’s best player from scoring.

“At that point,” he said, “you’ve just got to play defense.”

And the UCLA senior did all of that just well enough to force a miss, to help the Bruins eke out a desperate 65-64 victory over Virginia Commonwealth in the first round of the NCAA tournament Thursday night.

As the last shot floated harmlessly short of the basket -- a rare misfire from VCU star Eric Maynor -- sixth-seeded UCLA had fought its way into a second-round game against third-seeded Villanova on Saturday.

Bruins swingman Josh Shipp put it this way: “We survived.”

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s what you get with this UCLA team, this season.


No one should be too surprised by what happened at the Wachovia Center -- this game was billed as a matchup between teams that emphasized shutting the other guy down.

And though VCU came in seeded 11th, a little-known program from the little-known Colonial Athletic Assn., in recent days the Rams had become a trendy pick to score an upset.

Even President Obama had checked them off on his March Madness bracket.

A tough game in a tough city like Philadelphia -- it made sense.

“Our guys came out and fought hard,” VCU Coach Anthony Grant said.

All night long, the Rams pestered the Bruins with a variety of defenses, mixing some zone and trap, going full court when UCLA inbounded the ball from its own end.

They were successful in forcing 12 turnovers and, whenever they fell behind, finding a way to scramble back. But UCLA was just as effective with its man-to-man pressure.

As for offense, that came in fits and spurts.

After a closely contested first 10 minutes or so, the Bruins went on a 13-0 run, keyed by three-pointers from Collison and Shipp, taking a 35-25 lead into halftime.

They continued to play well through much of the second half, freshman Jrue Holiday making a string of shots to help maintain a nine-point lead, 61-52, with four minutes remaining. Holiday also handled much of the ballhandling duties, an adjustment by Coach Ben Howland to help deal with VCU’s press.

In all, five Bruins scored in double figures, led by Shipp’s 16. Forward Nikola Dragovic added a career-high 13 rebounds.

But there was still Maynor to deal with.

The VCU senior came into this game considered -- with Collison -- among the top point guards in the nation. Fans were expecting a marquee matchup and, in some respects, Maynor won that battle.

All night long, he was able to draw fouls and get to the line, making 10 of 13 free throws, ending up with a game-high 21 points. He keyed a late comeback and, sinking two of those foul shots with 48 seconds left, pulled the Rams to within one.

“We didn’t play to keep it close,” Grant said. “We played to win.”

And when they stopped UCLA on the next possession, they had a chance.

“We didn’t do a good job of closing them out when we had that lead,” Howland said.

By holding on, the Bruins proceed to a second-round game against a Villanova team that looks like a cross between Washington and California, athletic, under control.

Not only are the Wildcats seeded higher, they also have the geographical edge, their campus a short drive from downtown Philadelphia.

They looked less than invincible struggling against 14th-seeded American, trailing for much of the second half before pulling away. But if Thursday night was any measure, a great majority of the crowd will be rooting for them Saturday. At great volume.

“When we step on the floor and we hear the crowd,” Wildcats swingman Dwayne Anderson said, “it’s definitely a homecourt advantage.”

The Bruins weren’t thinking that far ahead after Thursday’s game. They were just relieved to be moving on, in no small part, because of Collison’s last-gasp defense.

When VCU inbounded with 13 seconds remaining, the Bruins stopped Maynor from receiving the pass. Precious seconds ran off the clock before the star player got the ball.

The Rams, as they had been doing all night, set a screen for Maynor across halfcourt, but this time Shipp jumped out to slow him, allowing Collison to scramble back into position.

Maynor pump-faked. Collison didn’t bite. Then came that 18-foot jump shot that traveled about 17 feet.

“Oh, c’mon, everybody knew he was going to take that last shot,” Collison said. “When he tried to get me up in the air, I just had a good contest.”