Kris Wilkes already was hobbled with calf cramps when he rose for the three-point shot that could ease his pain.
The ball had just gone through the net when Wilkes limped into the backcourt and slid to the court, the UCLA small forward grimacing in anguish as teammate Jaylen Hands ran to mob him in celebration.
The near-capacity crowd roared in appreciation, Wilkes’ shot with nine-tenths of a second remaining Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion completing a comeback from a late five-point deficit and lifting the Bruins to an improbable 65-62 victory over Notre Dame.
Wilkes had gone to the locker room earlier in the second half because of cramps and had to be helped off the court by teammates after his winning shot completed UCLA’s game-ending 8-0 run.
“That was a great shot,” said Wilkes, who got a hug from Hands in mid-answer at the postgame news conference.
The sequence was set up by power forward Jalen Hill blocking a shot off the backboard, allowing Prince Ali to grab the rebound and dribble up court before finding Wilkes for the winner. Wilkes wasn’t in much of a mood for celebration, though.
“I think the best part was I went to go celebrate with him and he was on the ground like, ‘Nah, get off me. My leg,’” Hands said.
Temple Gibbs’ halfcourt heave at the buzzer was well off the mark for the Fighting Irish, who had erased a 14-point deficit in the second half only to come up short in agonizing fashion.
It was the sort of finish that made you want the teams to meet again in a week.
That used to happen in the heyday of the UCLA-Notre Dame rivalry, when the teams met twice in a season, but the Irish will have to wait a year for a rematch in South Bend, Ind.
“Well, that’s why we wanted the rivalry back, to have games like that,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said.
Notre Dame (6-3) looked as if it was going to complete a comeback when the Irish held a 62-57 lead with less than three minutes to play. But Ali made a breakaway dunk and stepped to the free-throw line for three shots with 2:16 left after being fouled on a three-point try.
It was the same situation Ali had faced earlier in the second half, making only one of three attempts and perhaps further denting the confidence of a player who entered the game having made only 42.9% of his free throws this season.
But Ali made all three attempts this time, tying the score 62-62 before the teams traded empty possessions leading up to the wild ending.
Wilkes had predicted it, in a way. He told teammate Shareef O’Neal on the bench late in the game that his next shot was going in, and it did.
The Bruins were lucky that Wilkes was around just to take the shot. Cramps have been an ongoing issue for Wilkes, who acknowledged needing to do a better job of hydrating.
“I think they offered me some stuff earlier to help me out before the game and I didn’t accept it,” Wilkes said. “But it’s my job to take better precautions with hydration.”
Hands had 12 points and 11 assists as the Bruins (7-2) notched their first victory of the season over a major-conference opponent and stretched their winning streak to three games.
Frisky fans from the season-high crowd of 12,985 provided a big-game feel from the opening tip.
Students packed most of the sections behind one basket from the court to the rafters. Some students broke out in a spontaneous Frisbee cheer before the game even though the cheer’s creator, Larry “Frisbee” Davis, has asked the Bruins to stop.
But there was no holding back with Notre Dame making its first appearance in Westwood in nearly a decade.
Former Bruins great Bill Walton, on hand to call the game for ESPN2, held up an old rumpled sign before the game reading “Digger Is a Wimp,” a chant UCLA fans once liked to direct at Digger Phelps when he was the Irish’s coach.
There was lots to like for a crowd that included Bruins legends Jamaal Wilkes, Sidney Wicks and Marques Johnson. When power forward Cody Riley made a block in the final moments before halftime, Alford pumped his fists in delight as the players headed for the locker room.
There were bigger celebrations to come.