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Emotional final men’s basketball game in Pauley Pavilion brings the end of an era

By Eli Smukler

March 1, 2011 12:10 a.m.

The creases on Ben Howland’s face don’t break rank very often in his postgame press conferences ““ this happens only on special occasions.

During last month’s win streak, a reporter asked the UCLA men’s basketball coach if he felt emotional after accomplishing victories over rival USC and Steve Lavin-led St. John’s.

“No,” Howland said, his lips curling into a smile only after a brief pause of unintentional deadpan.

Saturday’s game, however, was enough to momentarily lift the 53-year-old disciplinarian’s veil.

Afterward, he broke down in the locker room while talking to his players.

In the press conference, he forced himself to pause mid-sentence so as not to lose his composure.

And why not?

The circumstances that went into making it such a special event comprise a list so long that the actual victory over Arizona, the program’s first over a top-10 team since 2008, took a backseat.

The game was pegged as a tribute to Pauley Pavilion, the 46-year-old building that “only hangs national championship banners,” but it became a memorial to the man so important to the history of this community, he doesn’t even need a name.

“I’ve got some tears in my eyes because I was thinking about Coach,” Howland said.

Soon after, John Wooden’s name reappeared in the local and national press because his great-grandson, Bruin junior Tyler Trapani, banked in a garbage time layup to end the field goal scoring in the legendary building as it stands today.

“You couldn’t have written it any better,” Howland said, accidentally daring a room full of professional sportswriters.

But anyone who understands Howland’s feelings about being the steward of the UCLA basketball program knows that it was more than just one shot that has him humbled.

The blessing and curse that afflicts every man asked to sit on that throne is some interpretation of the mantra, “What Would Wooden Do?”

It is at least in part a reason why Howland is the way he is: practical, professional and sometimes stubborn.

Certain Bruin fans have always been irked by his slow-tempo, defense-first philosophies, even after they helped UCLA get to three straight Final Fours.

When Howland was forced to go to a zone defense last season, it was as if his very principles were being used as sweat rags.

After this year’s Bruin squad held the Wildcats to just 49 points on its biggest stage yet, this really feels like a Howland team again.

“Not playing man-to-man defense kind of stunted the last year’s freshmen,” he said. “We’re getting better defensively right now, and that’s really exciting for me.”

On Saturday, that trend was embodied most by sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, who had told Howland prior to the game that he wanted to guard Arizona’s NBA-bound forward Derrick Williams. Nelson backed it up by shutting down the potential Pac-10 Player of the Year in the second half to stifle any chance of a Wildcat comeback.

“I’ve been told that some people say I can’t play defense,” Nelson said. “I just take that really personally.”

You know Howland has to like that.

Other players have also become more defensive-minded this season, junior guard Malcolm Lee chief among them.

Though he scored only three points on Saturday, Lee’s perimeter defense helped hold Arizona to just four-of-19 from beyond the arc.

Behind the scenes, you know Howland is smiling about all these developments.

“This was by far our best game of the year,” he said. “This was the best 40 minutes.”

That is true. Unlike some coaches, Howland is not the kind that will try to trump up his team’s performance if it’s not warranted.

Starting Thursday, every game UCLA plays will be its most significant in terms of NCAA Tournament seeding, and Howland has his players playing their best basketball of the season.

Possibly more important though, at the very least to the one man who will be held responsible for all wins and losses, is that the Bruins are playing the best Howland brand of basketball we’ve seen in a long time.

As history shows, that could be a good combination.

Smukler co-hosts “Overtime with Daily Bruin Sports,” which airs every Monday at 6:30 p.m. on UCLAradio.com. E-mail him at [email protected].

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