Arizona is the tenth ranked team in the country, and first place in the Pac-10. They possess one of the most dominant players in all of college basketball, the surefire conference player of the year (and potentially the number one overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft) Derrick Williams. They were seeking vengeance from a loss on Thursday, and were seeking to clinch a solo title as conference champion.
Unfortunately for Sean Miller’s squad, they were also the last team UCLA was ever going to face in historic Pauley Pavilion. And there was absolutely no way that the Bruins were going to send out the house that Wooden built with a loss. After 46 years, 9 NCAA men’s basketball championship banners, and countless basketball hall-of-famers, the final game in the old Pauley Pavilion (before it closes next year for an internal overhall) was played on Saturday. UCLA fans filled the stadium to capacity to honor the final game in the most historic stadium in all of college basketball, and they were rewarded with the Bruins dominating a top-10 team in order to temporarily take a share of first place in the conference.
In their 71-49 victory over the Wildcats, the Bruins arguably played their most complete game of the season. Sure, there had been other blowout victories this season, and there had even been one victory over a better team (BYU). But each of those games was marred by severe deficiencies (usually a slow start and having to climb out of a deficit) and helped out with some luck. In this game, the Bruins played up to their potential both offensively and defensively, holding the Wildcats to their lowest point total of the season by far (36 points less than the 85 the Wildcats scored against the Bruins in Tucson.)
Reeves Nelson had his best game in a Bruin uniform, scoring a career high 27 points to go with 16 boards. He outperformed the highly touted Williams and was instrumental in UCLA grabbing a temporary share of the conference crown. This game was all about the frontcourt, as Nelson, Joshua Smith, and Tyler Honeycutt combined for 59 of UCLA’s 71 total points.
UCLA grabbed a 27-26 lead with 6:30 left in the first half, and never relinquished it. An 11-0 Bruin run to start the second half helped put the game out of reach. The Wildcats started to get close twice: they pulled off a 10-0 run with thirteen minutes left to bring themselves within 11, and as well as a Williams jumper put the Wildcats within 9 with 4:30 left. UCLA didn’t flinch in either instance, however, and continued to pound the ball inside and play excellent defense to make sure the game was never in doubt.
Of course, perhaps the biggest story of the game came with the final bucket. Tyler Trapini, the great-grandson of legendary coach John Wooden, was allowed to walk-on to UCLA’s team for symbolic reasons three years ago, totaling 3 minutes and 0 points in his three years of play. On Saturday, however, he recorded his first points in a UCLA uniform – oh, and it happened to be on the final bucket ever scored at Pauley Pavilion.
Upon hearing that John Wooden’s great-grandson scored the last ever basket at the historic venue, an outsider would probably assume that it was somewhat artificially constructed and that Ben Howland instructed the other players to allow him to do so. Nope – this was 100% organic and the play was not designed for him. Trapini sprinted underneath the basket alone for the rebound when he saw fellow walk-on Jack Haley Jr. take a three-pointer, which resulted in an airball. (Apparently Jack Sr. was too busy babysitting Dennis Rodman to teach his son proper three-point shooting form….I kid, I kid.) Trapini grabbed the rebound and put it back in for the first points of his career. Coach Howland, normally a stoic and intimidating man, started to tear up at the press conference when talking about it. “I got some tears in my eyes. I was thinking about Coach (John Wooden). It was so fitting Tyler hit the shot. It fell right in his hands. There’s something going on there, I really believe it.”
Other game notes:
- Malcolm Lee had a horrible offensive game (1-7 for 3 points) but contributed in other ways, especially defensively. His perimeter defense was key in limiting Arizona to just shooting 4-of-19 from three. Lazeric Jones also had a relatively poor offensive game, only scoring two points on 1-5 shooting. The frontcourt contributed to nearly all of UCLA’s offense as the guards struggled offensively, but its important to note that the guards were effective in limiting their Wildcat counterparts as well.
- Tyler Honeycutt limited his turnovers, only giving the ball away once all game. The team as a hole had 8 turnovers, which isn’t particularly bad or good, and although they lost the TO margin (Arizona only had 6) it shows an improvement from the multiple double digit turnover games UCLA seemed to have for the past few months.
- UCLA only shot 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. In fact, most of UCLA’s points weren’t even from jumpers, they were from dunks and layups. UCLA was able to pound the ball inside all game, while preventing Arizona from doing the same on the other end.
- At halftime, Wooden’s ’71 championship team was honored. In a strange coincidence, the Bruins ended up scoring exactly 71 points.
- As the final home game of the season, this game WOULD have been Senior Night, if not for the fact that UCLA doesn’t have a single senior on the roster (not even one of the walk-ons). It’s somewhat likely, however, that this was the last home game for sophomore Tyler Honeycutt (projected as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft) and possibly junior Malcolm Lee (projected as a second rounder.)
- UCLA also received two gifts from the RPI gods on Saturday, as the recipients of their two signature out-of-conference victories became stronger as BYU defeated San Diego State (and now even look prime for a one-seed in the NCAA tournament) and St. Johns defeated Villanova.
- According to the latest “Bracketology” before this weekend, UCLA would be a 9-seed in the tournament. One can’t help but feel that this signature victory likely propelled the Bruins to at least a 7-seed. (which is much preferable to an 8 or 9 seed, as UCLA could conceivably upset a 2-seed in the second round but probably would not have much of a chance against a 1-seed like Ohio State, Pitt, Kansas or Duke.) One thing is for sure, though – UCLA has absolutely clinched a berth in the tournament, even if they were to be swept by the Washington schools and then lose in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament.
In terms of conference standings, it’s very nice for the Bruins to temporarily take a share of first place. That being said, Bruin fans shouldn’t get too carried away, as UCLA closes the season with the toughest road trip in the conference (travelling to the Washington schools) while Arizona closes at home against the easiest pair to host in the conference (the Oregon schools). UCLA visits Washington on Thursday, which will almost certainly be a loss considering that UCLA hasn’t won there since 2003, and the Huskies are undefeated at home this season (with their smallest margin of victory being 11 points).
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