LAS VEGAS — This could only happen in this town, at this moment, to this dramatic, desperate, dancing-with-doom UCLA basketball team.
This was a disillusioned gambler finally accumulating a chin-high pile of chips, daring to smile, then promptly crapping out.
As the final buzzer sounded in the Bruins’ roaring 66-64 comeback victory over Arizona in the semifinals of the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena Friday, the most important player on the floor apparently leaped in celebration.
Only UCLA’s Jordan Adams wasn’t celebrating. He was agonizing. On the game’s final play, a Wildcat had stepped on his right foot and Adams was hopping around in pain.
Adams was able to stand through postgame interviews. His teammates felt confident enough to talk about how he carried them on his young but broad shoulders. Everyone waxed about the Bruins’ relentless revival and what it all might mean for next week’s madness. The locker rooms emptied with players and coaches streaming into the adjoining casino for an appropriately celebratory walk through its echoing ka-chings.
At which point, back at the arena, solemn UCLA officials quietly announced that hurried X-rays revealed Adams had suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot and would be out for the season.
That sound you just heard was Ben Howland’s statement upon hearing the news. He was already in the casino and did not give one. It’s just as well. Whatever he said might have been confused with the agonizing shouts of that gentleman wearing sunglasses whose flush was just beaten with a full house.
Can the Bruins keep winning without Adams? Well, on Friday, they couldn’t win without him, as he led them back from an 11-point deficit with 18 second-half points while making seven of eight free throws down the stretch.
“He has that knack for making the big play when we need it, and he did it again tonight,” point guard Larry Drew II said. “Seriously, I’m going to go watch some Jordan Adams video to see how he does this stuff.”
Ironically, on a night when he took the season’s biggest fall, Adams’ most impressive feat was just standing up. The favored, physical Wildcats knocked him to the floor, knocked him into photographers, bounced him everywhere but out.
“Did you see how he just kept getting up?” Drew said. “He was tough as nails, giving up his body for the team.”
Sadly, it turns out, that’s exactly what happened, the Bruins losing their best defender and free-throw shooter, and are there any two more important categories in March college basketball than defense and foul shots?
Oh yeah, he’s also their second-leading scorer.
It will be a chore for the Bruins to survive Saturday’s tournament championship game against Oregon without Adams, and they could still win a first-round NCAA tournament game next weekend.
But the loss of Adams probably means losing a reasonable chance of advancing to the Sweet 16, which would probably mean the end of Ben Howland’s career.
It’s now going to take a whole lot of some of the stuff they found Friday night to save it.
In front of a screaming, hostile crowd that was 80% Arizona fans, UCLA quieted the room with the same calm resilience that helped them to a 15-point comeback against Arizona State the previous day.
“Another fantastic win,” Howland said. “They never quit, they never give up, they never stop believing in themselves, they show so much mental toughness. We get into close games, we’ve got a great shot at winning those games.”
Better than a great chance, actually, as the Bruins are 9-1 in games decided in the last two minutes.
On Friday they did what they have previously done in those situations. They complemented their glitzy talent with neighborhood fundamentals.
“We have a lot of great players on this team who aren’t used to losing and who are refusing to lose now,” Travis Wear said.
The Bruins were outrebounded like always, but in the final five minutes they started banging back, so upsetting Arizona Coach Sean Miller that he received a technical foul with 4:37 remaining. Adams made both free throws to tie the score and the Bruins mixed brute force and basics to make sure they only momentarily trailed again.
Kyle Anderson stood in front of a charging Solomon Hill to thwart him on a layup attempt. Shabazz Muhammad drew a foul fighting for an offensive rebound. Drew penetrated to set up a Wear dunk attempt that resulted in two more free throws. Anderson shoved aside some Wildcats to follow an Adams miss with the final points to clinch it.
It was dirty work. It was desperate work. With Adams now gone, it is the only way the rest of this season can work.