Saturday’s game ended with UCLA Coach Ben Howland screaming at his players — not that usual tough-love-type stuff, mind you. This was sheer happiness.
The Bruins had a rough week, with a Sports Illustrated story portraying a program in disarray. It was part of a rough regular season that began with leading scorer Reeves Nelson being tossed off the team.
So the Bruins found particular joy in a 75-69 victory over Washington — the Pac-12 Conference’s first-place team — that resulted in senior walk-on Tyler Trapani getting pushed around by teammates in the locker room as Howland hollered.
Of course, Trapani was piled upon as part of the team’s senior day celebration, and Howland’s yelling was hardly the type that rings in many a referee’s ear.
“This was louder,” Howland said. “This was love. After a great win like that, I let out a really loud scream. When I don’t have the voice left, I’ll bring [center ] Josh [Smith] up. He’ll scream and I’m the ventriloquist.”
That vaudeville act came after oh-so-many pratfalls, which left the Bruins a mid-level team in a conference that has a mid-major feel this season.
So grinding out a victory over Washington allowed UCLA players and coaches to leave smiling from their last game as Sports Arena tenants. The Bruins, 18-13 overall and 11-7 in conference play, spent the season as vagabonds while Pauley Pavilion is being renovated.
A rush of events ended things well for UCLA. David Wear’s tip-in gave the Bruins a 71-69 lead with 44 seconds left. UCLA made three defensive stops, and Lazeric Jones and Travis Wear each made two free throws.
With that, the Bruins won their last home game in the Sports Arena . . . just as they did in 1965. UCLA went on to win the NCAA title that season. Winning the conference tournament would be satisfying enough this time around.
The Bruins will play USC in the first round Wednesday at Staples Center. Their only path to the NCAA tournament is to win four games in four days to snag the Pac-12’s automatic berth.
“Right now we want to roll with this win, but we know the next four games will be tough,” said Jones, who scored 20 points. “We’ve been so close all year. Maybe this is a turning point. This will give us some momentum.”
The Bruins, preseason picks to win the conference, might have had more to celebrate, but they lost four conference road games by three points or fewer and blew a double-digit lead at Oregon.
“We knew what we’re capable of and we didn’t meet our expectations,” guard Jerime Anderson said.
Washington (21-9, 14-4) needed a victory to win the regular-season Pac-12 title outright and held an uncontested shoot-around in the first half, which ended with the Huskies ahead, 47-44. But they were smothered by UCLA’s defense in the second half, shooting 32.1%.
“It still comes down to being able to defend,” Howland said.
Tyler Lamb had four steals, all in the second half. After one steal, he fed Jones, whose three-pointer gave put the Bruins ahead, 63-62, their first lead since 11-10.
On the other end, Lamb finished with 14 points and five assists. Travis Wear had 16 points and 10 rebounds.
“We played with a lot of moxie,” Howland said. In retrospect, he said, “I think the adversity of this week brought us closer together.”