UCLA looks pretty good in ugly win

Updated: March 26, 2006, 1:42 AM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

OAKLAND, Calif. -- One by one, the big-time college coaches filed through Jordan Farmar's living room two years ago, promising the exact same thing. Come to our school, they said, and you'll be a star. You can lead the team, the conference, maybe even the nation in scoring.

Ben Howland's approach was different. Come to UCLA, Howland told the McDonald's All-American, and you can play defense. And we can win a national championship.

"He was the only one who came in and sold me on defense," Farmar said. "The only one. That stuck with me."

So forgive Farmar, Howland or any of the other UCLA Bruins for failing to apologize after beating Memphis 50-45 Saturday night to earn a trip to the Final Four. Forgive them for bumping, grinding and defending their way to victory in a game that Memphis head coach John Calipari called the ugliest of his career.

Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesMemphis couldn't get away from UCLA's smothering defense.
The Bruins don't really care what you think. Wearing their Final Four hats, their Final Four T-shirts and holding a championship strand of nylon in each of their hands, they're the ones who will be heading to Indianapolis next weekend for a shot at the school's 12th national championship.

"If I was at home watching, I probably would have turned it off," UCLA senior Cedric Bozeman said. "It wasn't very pretty. But it doesn't matter. What do they say? By any means necessary, just get it done. And we got it done."

In bruising, boring, hey-hunny-what-else-is-on fashion, the Bruins got it done with the type of play usually found in the Big Ten -- not Pac-10. Before Saturday, no two teams had ever combined for fewer points in a regional final. The Bruins and Tigers beat the old mark by 15 points.

In addition:

• UCLA's 50 points were less than the amount that Karl Dorell's Bruins football team scored in three of its 12 games this year.

• It was the lowest offensive output in any of UCLA's third-best 88 NCAA tournament victories.

• The 95 combined points were less than either UCLA (102) or Connecticut (96) scored the last time the Bruins won a regional final, in 1995.

"I can't imagine that people actually watched that, other than to see who won," Calipari said. "That was the ugliest game I've ever coached in. Easily."

In the end, a Memphis team that averaged 81 points a game was held to nearly half that. The team that likes getting up and down the floor was harassed into playing too fast, contributing to 20 missed shots from five feet or closer, 15 missed 3-pointers.

The Tigers were coaxed into 18 turnovers, two shot clock violations and 31-percent shooting from the field, their lowest output since a January loss to Texas.

When it was finally over, the Tigers, who had beaten UCLA 88-80 earlier this season, were left sitting in their locker room, dazed and confused.

"I can't explain it," forward Shawne Williams said. "It's crazy. We wore on them like they wore on us. But we could never take the lead."

Said Calipari: "I thought we'd be more physical than them, and we weren't. They were more physical than us. We thought we could wear them down. But it didn't happen."

That's not entirely true. Memphis did turn up its defensive pressure and clamp down on the Bruins in the second half, when UCLA made just four field goals (on 17 attempts) and still won.

But it wasn't nearly enough -- because of the Bruins' defense. When Howland came to UCLA from Pittsburgh three years ago, this is what he sold to his players: defense, focus and mental toughness. They bought in. And Saturday night in northern California, he was proven right. When his two star players -- guards Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo -- combined to go 3-of-18 from the floor, when his team shot 51 percent from the free-throw line, when they were outrebounded by five and committed 17 turnovers, they still won.

"Defense wins," guard Jordan Farmar said. "Everybody in this locker room is a winner. You want to be in the winning locker room? Play defense. You gonna have shooting nights like tonight and yet look at the bottom line -- we're still winners. We're still the ones with the trophy."

Welcome to Howland's dream. Forget heart-racing, last-minute comebacks against Gonzaga. Forget the up-and-down-the-floor basketball the Pac-10 is known for. The kid who grew up watching Wooden and Walton wants to make UCLA the Wisconsin of the West. Howland explained after the game what every great coach already knows: Defense indeed wins.

"Who are the best two teams in the NBA? They're Detroit and San Antonio," Howland said. "Who is the best team in the NFL? The Steelers. Who has been the best team? New England."

Look back on UCLA's first two weeks in the NCAA Tournament and there's no great secret as to why they are where they are. Last weekend, there was Afflalo harassing Alabama's Ronald Steele on a last-second 3-point attempt in San Diego. Thursday night, there was the entire Bruins team holding light-it-up Gonzaga to 29 second-half points, helping UCLA erase a 17-point deficit for the come-from-behind win.

And on Saturday, there they were again, making one of the most athletic, individually talented teams in the country look like a mix-n-match group from the local rec club.

"Just so you know," Howland said, "Our goal is to not let you ram it down our throat."

It's a goal they'll take with them to Indianapolis, where the Bruins believe there's still work to be done. Calipari is a believer. He said if the Bruins can keep their games in the 60s, they can beat anybody. Farmar hopes the Memphis coach is right. When the UCLA guard was asked after the postgame press conference to hold up the regional championship trophy, he refused.

"I'm going to leave it down there," Farmar said. "At UCLA, no other banner but national championships go up. I'm going to leave it down here till we take care of business."

No matter how ugly it is.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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