SEATTLE — Larry Drew II had done this before, but never had the stakes been this high, the stage this large, the crowd this deafening.
With a three-point lead in hand at Alaska Airlines Arena on national TV, UCLA’s lone senior breezed by Washington senior Scott Suggs and rolled the ball off the glass, the Bruins’ last field goal in a 61-54 victory that anointed them as Pac-12 champions, their first title since 2008.
“(Suggs) was, in my opinion, a little too close,” Drew said. “I feel like I can beat anyone off the dribble. So I just used my ability to take him off the bounce, I got to the cup, and finished.”
Thanks to Drew, UCLA had done its part and knew it had at least a share of the regular-season conference crown, but that was just the beginning. The Bruins (23-8, 13-5 Pac-12) needed the Oregon Ducks – who had the same conference record entering Saturday – to lose if they wanted sole possession of the conference crown.
Oregon and Utah tipped off 30 minutes after UCLA and Washington. Dual wins or losses meant a shared championship. The Bruins trailed by one at the half, the Ducks by 14.
“At halftime, we heard (Utah) was up so we just had to take care of our business,” said freshman Jordan Adams, who finished with 17 points.
Determined not to repeat an uninspired second-half performance that saw it lose to lowly Washington State on Wednesday, UCLA opened the second half on a 10-2 run, fueled by Adams and freshman Shabazz Muhammad.
As he has all season, Muhammad led the team in scoring, finishing the game with 21 points. The crowd – one that has not been too kind to UCLA teams of late, as Saturday marked the program’s first win in Seattle since 2004 – continued to jeer Muhammad. He turned up the intensity on his way to 14 second-half points.
“Once it was getting tighter toward the end, I just tried to be relentless and it really worked for me,” Muhammad said.
“It was funny because I was doing a really good job. I think I scored a lot of points and got my teammates involved and (the crowd) was saying, ‘Overrated.’”
But as was the case when UCLA beat Washington in Los Angeles, the end of the game belonged to Drew. Muhammad was barbecued by media members and message boarders for clapping for the ball and subsequently ignoring a team celebration after Drew’s buzzer-beater sent the Huskies home last month.
“I think he gets it now,” said Drew, who finished with six assists and broke UCLA’s single-season assist record in the process.
Just two years removed from being benched at North Carolina, Drew was overwhelmed with emotion sitting in the locker room while teammates celebrated by spraying him with soda.
Meanwhile, Pac-12 officials stood outside with the trophy and a banner while coach Ben Howland waited until time had expired in Salt Lake City to conduct his postgame news conference. Utah beat Oregon by 10. The Bruins emerged from the locker room and were congratulated by Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.
“Larry Drew has led us to the Pac-12 championship,” Howland said. “Everything starts with a point guard. You can’t win championships without a great point guard.”
The celebration started again.
“After everything I’ve been through, it means a lot,” said Drew, fighting tears. “I can’t even put it into words. I’m numb right now. I can’t feel nothing. I’m just happy.”