Bruins get a win and a reason for worry
The rumble that filtered through a sparsely populated Pauley Pavilion on Wednesday night was the sound that worry makes.
The sound of bewildered fans watching UCLA trail deep into the second half.
A sound that turned to cheers -- part joy, part relief -- only in the final seconds as UCLA barely escaped against little-known Concordia, 62-61, in the first exhibition game of the season.
That would be Concordia of Irvine. A team that normally plays in the NAIA.
“Obviously, we have a lot of work to do to be able to compete at all in the Pac-10,” Coach Ben Howland said. “We were lucky to win.”
It might have been worse. The Bruins might have lost if not for an unlikely hero.
Mustafa Abdul-Hamid, a former walk-on pressed into action at point guard, suffered through seven of his team’s 20 turnovers before nailing a three-pointer with 16 seconds remaining.
“Negative thoughts weren’t going through my head,” he said. “It was just about making the next play.”
The Bruins knew coming in that they face a rebuilding job, with four starters gone from last season. Their early practices had been hampered by no fewer than six players sitting out with injuries.
And Howland knew that exhibition losses are not unheard of, No. 25 Syracuse falling to Division II LeMoyne on Tuesday.
But this was not the start that he and his players envisioned.
More than anything, Concordia used its small, quick guards to attack a perceived weakness in UCLA. The Bruins are thin in the backcourt, and were especially so on Wednesday with point guard Jerime Anderson recovering from a sore groin.
Taking his place, Abdul-Hamid and Malcolm Lee looked flustered against Concordia’s pressure. At the other end, they could not stop the Eagles from penetrating, and UCLA’s big men offered little help.
The result? Concordia guard Justin Johnson raced to 21 points, opening up room for Brandon Hucks and Ben Smith, who had 10 and eight, respectively.
The trio kept its team ahead for almost the entire game, until the final three minutes when UCLA started making clutch shots.
Nikola Dragovic, who had 12 points, sank a twisting layup and Drew Gordon, who led UCLA with 17, scored on a spinning move. Then came Abdul-Hamid’s shot.
Concordia still had time to score but UCLA held on with scrambling defense under the basket.
“It was a good sign that we came back,” forward James Keefe said. “But, as a team, we did not want it to be this close.”