Ben Howland made a deal with a reporter 12 games into the UCLA men’s basketball team’s season.
And on March 5, after the Bruins played their 31st and final game of the regular season, the UCLA coach stayed true to his word.
The Bruins were fresh off a four-point overtime win that capped off a season full of highs and lows on the high side, and the giddy coach sat in the Washington State locker room urging reporters to listen to a story he wanted to tell.
UCLA was 8-4, coming off a marginal one-point victory over UC Irvine on Dec. 23 when Jon Gold of The Los Angeles Daily News made a projection.
Even after the up-and-down start, Gold told Howland that he thought UCLA could win between 22 and 24 games, including wins in the Pac-10 tournament.
To this, Howland was reportedly incredulous.
“God, I’d kiss you right now,” Howland promised Gold. “I swear to God. I would come over there and I’d kiss you if we got 22, 23, 24 wins. Are you kidding me? I’d be so happy. Are you kidding? That’s so nice to even project that possibility.”
Gold’s forehead was covered in Howland happiness after the Washington State victory, UCLA’s 22nd win of the year. The team finished second in the Pac-10, one place ahead of the preseason projections.
The Bruins finished a little better than many pundits thought they would, a lot better than 2010, and, well, certainly better than their coach imagined.
“I mean that,” he said after laying down the smooch. Then he grinned ear to ear.
The Bruins are going dancing again, and Howland is in a lovely frame of mind.
Coming off one of its worst seasons in program history, UCLA looked ready to right the ship right away.
Though they were playing the likes of Cal State Northridge and Pacific, the Bruins went 4-0 to start the season and punched a ticket to the semifinals of the NIT Tip-Off in New York.
Against tournament-level competition however, the Bruins faltered, losing three straight for the only time this season.
It started bad with a convincing defeat to Villanova. It got worse with an upset at the hands of Virginia Commonwealth, and then some Bruins fans say it got plain unfair when UCLA lost to Kansas on the road thanks to a controversial foul on sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt with seven-tenths of a second remaining.
“You just lose the game off a tacky foul and the free throws at the end, that’s kind of hard,” junior guard Malcolm Lee told the Los Angeles Times after the game. “You might as well lose by 30 because that’s just crazy.”
And just when Bruin fans thought it couldn’t get worse, the Big Sky’s Montana came to Pauley Pavilion to add mounds of salt to fresh wounds.
“It’s a bad loss,” said a depressed Howland after that Sunday-night defeat. “This was a nightmare deal.”
Montana handled UCLA 66-57 with relative ease three days after the Kansas end-game debacle. Montana also solidified a troubling UCLA trend.
The Bruins fell down seven early against the Grizzles, the third time in the four-game losing streak in which UCLA would trail by seven or more within the first six minutes of each game.
And slow starts would plague the Bruins all season. They’d trail by seven early to USC in a loss, and be down 12 to Cal in the first nine minutes of an overtime loss late in the year.
Even in winning efforts UCLA often lagged, down 12 to Washington State, 10 to BYU, and 14 to Stanford, all in the first 15 minutes of the respective games.
But the Bruins began to show signs of progress immediately after the Montana upset. UCLA would string together six straight wins, including a quality win over BYU, before losing at home to Washington and then across town to USC.
UCLA got punched in the mouth by its rivals, and seemed to be reeling again afterwards
“They outhustled us on the boards in the second half, they outhustled us in transition, they were getting wide open lay ups, wide open dunks, wide open threes, you could kind of tell that (USC) played with sense of urgency,” freshman center Josh Smith said.
But Smith and his teammates didn’t take long to bounce back from the loss.
The big freshman, who had been tentative around the rim early in the year, threw down a thunderous dunk over an unlucky Beaver, helping the Bruins hold on to a victory over Oregon State in their next contest.
It was a turning point for both Smith and UCLA; the team would proceed to win 10 of its next 12, and 13 of 16 overall, securing an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament which begins this week.
Howland noted that one of the losses was in overtime, and another was a one-point game with only 4:20 to go.
“We’ve evolved as a team,” Howland said after beating Washington State. “We’ve really improved. We’re 13-3 in the last 16 games, and they’re all hard.”
However, the Oregon State win that sparked the Bruins’ consistently strong play was also the beginning of a new struggle. The Bruins gave up a 17-point second-half lead to the Beavers in that game and were fortunate to escape with a five-point win.
“It was huge,” Howland said afterward. “Can you imagine how we’d feel if we were sitting here talking about the loss after being up 17?”
Howland’s team would continue producing headaches throughout its 13-3 stretch.
Though they won both games, they gave up 14- and 15-point leads respectively to California and Arizona State. And their 16-point lead over Stanford was cut to four before UCLA pulled out the win.
The overtime victory in Pullman, Wash., to close the regular season only added to a year full of dramatic finishes. The Bruins are 5-3 this season in games decided by five points or less.
“These games take life off my expectancy,” Howland told the Times. “It’s brutal.”
There was however, at least one dramatic finish to a game that wasn’t close on the scoreboard.
When UCLA beat Arizona by 21 for perhaps its best win of the season, the buzz was about the final basket, not the win itself.
UCLA’s Tyler Trapani dumped in the final basket before the clock expired and Pauley Pavilion closed for renovation.
John Wooden’s great grandson had never scored in three years on the team, but when his layup went through the net, the 2011 Bruins became a team guided by a higher power.
Howland was choked up following that grand exit. He said Tuesday that he hasn’t thought a lot yet about the season as a whole.
He’ll have plenty of time for that when his team is done dancing.
“I’ll reflect,” Howland said, “when the season’s over.”
With reports from Bruin Sports senior staff and wire services.