One moment, they were in, the UCLA basketball team dancing all over the MGM Grand Garden Arena in leading mighty Arizona by a lucky seven with a dozen minutes remaining.
The next moment, they were out, as in, outscored, 15-0, amid a roaring sea of red.
One moment, this UCLA team acted as if it belonged in the NCAA tournament, pushing to within two points of Arizona three times in the final two minutes behind barreling, desperate senior Norman Powell.
The next moment, the Bruins were all about that NIT, losing yet another rebound, losing yet another Wildcats shooter, eventually losing, 70-64, Friday in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals.
So, in the end, which is it? The question that could be definitively answered only with a UCLA victory will now linger over Westwood for nearly 36 hours as the nervous Bruins await their fate like a blackjack player sitting on 17.
Is 20 wins, including 12 in their last 17 games, enough to convince the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee to give the Bruins one of 36 at-large bids for next week’s tournament? Or does the fact that only one of their wins came against a team ranked in the top 25 in RPI — Utah — render their record toothless?
Will it help that two of the Bruins’ last three losses came against Arizona, including a Friday night defeat that could have easily been a victory? Or will it hurt that during that same final stretch, they lost two of the games they should have won, falling on the road to both California and Arizona State?
The heart says that the Bruins deserve a spot because they are playing as well as they’ve played all season, and may have beaten Arizona if Kevon Looney, suffering from a facial fracture, wasn’t struggling to adjust to a mask he was handed two hours before the game.
The head, however, says no way. How can you make the tournament when Kentucky outscores you, 24-0, to start a game, when you score 39 points against Utah, when you fail to break 20 points in the first half three times in one dreadful four-game stretch?
On a night that epitomized a season, the Bruins had their chances Friday, but in the end they were shouted down like those thousands of Arizona fans who overwhelmed the minuscule Bruins cheering section. They continually could not make the big play, and now if they don’t make the tournament, they have only themselves to blame.
On one side of the quiet locker room, down past the row of players wearing towels on their heads, Looney wore a long bruise under his left eye but said he thinks the Bruins have earned a chance to keep fighting.
“Yes, we deserve it, we were a young team with a lot of ups and down, but as the season went on, we got better,” he said.
All true, and echoed from across the room by Bryce Alford, who said he only wished he had a vote.
“I think we’re one of the best teams in the country when we play well, and we should have had them today,” he said. “If the committee looked at the eye test, I thought we passed it today.”
Steve Alford, the Bruins coach who could uncomfortably follow his debut Sweet 16 finish with a giant goose egg, knows which way he’d vote.
When asked about his team belonging in the NCAA tournament, he said, “I don’t think there’s any question. I mean, obviously it’s March Madness so there’s a lot that goes into it, but if my math is right I think there’s 31 at-large teams.… There’s no way there’s 31 at-large teams better than we are.”
His math is wrong, of course, but even with the five other at-large berths that he forgot, these Bruins might have a tough time cracking that list. The bottom line Friday is that, down the stretch, Arizona climbed down the Bruins jerseys, shoved them out of the way, and sent them reeling, not dancing.
Tony Parker brought up this bottom line, and shrugged in resignation.
“We should be in the tournament, but we didn’t get that win; that was a big loss for us,” he said. “It is what it is.”
Or, in this case, it is what it isn’t.
The Bruins’ game isn’t physical enough, isn’t sharp enough, and just isn’t consistent enough. Before the game’s first timeout Friday, UCLA had thrown up a brick, an airball, been called for traveling, and two fouls had been assessed to Thursday night’s hero Isaac Hamilton. Before the second timeout, they added a blocked layup and an airball, helping Arizona to an 11-2 lead.
A three-pointer by Alford tied the game at halftime, then they stormed out to that seven-point lead as willed there by Powell, but then the same old Bruins showed up.
During the Wildcats’ 15-0 run, the Bruins were beaten twice by Arizona offensive rebounds, and also suffered a turnover, a blocked shot and an airball.
“The block-outs killed us, sparked the run, that’s definitely on me,” Parker said. “I was definitely out of position.”
Looney said he had trouble not only blocking out the other guys, but simply recognizing them.
“I didn’t have time to get used to the mask; it was hard to see things around me,” he said.
It’s not hard, however, to see the ramifications of UCLA’s absence from the tournament. It would be the third time in six years that college basketball’s most decorated program has not made the tournament, the longest such streak in 30 years, since the days of Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard.
“Our goal at UCLA is to make the tournament, that’s one of the things you’re supposed to do,” said Looney.
On that, everyone can agree.