STAPLES CENTER –
The rabbit sensed his opening and took off, frantically trying to escape the stalking predator.
The fox laid off, waiting for the rabbit to grow desperate.
The rabbit kept his distance, maintaining a cushion on the fox as long as he could.
The fox stayed patient, tried to take inch-by-inch.
The rabbit grew weary, its tired legs pattering as fast as they could, the steps getting smaller, smaller, smaller.
The fox pounced as everyone knew it would, finally caught up to the rabbit and promptly tore it to shreds.
On Friday night, the UCLA Bruins were the rabbit, cute and cuddly, trying their darndest to postpone their season one more night, for the Pac-10 Tournament championship game.
The Cal Bears were the fox, cunning and experienced, wily, just knowing their time would come.
Jerome Randle was the fox’s razor-sharp teeth.
The Pac-10 Player of the Year scored 24 points on 7-of-11 shooting and hit a crucial 3-pointer as the first half expired as Cal advanced to the Pac-10 Tournament championship game with an 85-72 win on Friday night at Staples Center.
“It was the story of the fox and the rabbit,” said UCLA sophomore guard Malcolm Lee, who finished with six points and five assists. “The fox was just looking for a meal, the rabbit was just running for his life. We were the rabbit. We jumped out ahead, but you could feel their intensity come out of nowhere.”
As they’ve done so often this year, the Bruins got ahead early, forging a 20-10 lead with senior forward Michael Roll on fire. Roll had 10 points during the spurt, working well off screens and finishing creases in the Cal defense, finishing the first half with 16.
His 3-pointer with 1 minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half gave the Bruins a 39-30 lead with the ball, but he missed a layup, fouled Cal forward Theo Robertson, and it began.
Robertson hit both free throws, the Bears got a Reeves Nelson turnover on the ensuing possession and Randle milked the clock, picked up a screen on Lee, bounced back and drained a 3-pointer over Nikola Dragovic, the nine-point lead falling to four in less than a minute.
“I was gonna stay with it at first, but I heard coach call to switch, and that’s when I saw Jerome’s eyes light up,” Lee said. “I knew he was gonna pull it, too. I didn’t think it’d be that deep, though.”
If that was the end of it, though, UCLA might have had a chance.
It was not.
The Bears continued their torrid stretch by moving into the Bruins defense, Randle and backcourt mates Patrick Christopher and Jorge Gutierrez penetrating with ease.
When it was over 10 minutes later, a 24-5 run had Cal up 10, and UCLA would get it no closer than six the rest of the way.
“We knew what we were going up against and we wanted to come in and try to be aggressive,” Randle said. “Like coach said, they came in and played really hard in the beginning. We didn’t want to back down so we came in the second half and threw the first punch.”
The Bruins’ response had little force. Forget a punch; UCLA barely managed a playful slap to the cheek.
With Nelson plagued by leg soreness after a standout performance in UCLA’s 75-69 win over Arizona on Thursday, his first game back following a four-game absence because of eye troubles, the Bruins had little clout in the post. Nelson went from 19 points and 10 rebounds against the Wildcats to eight points, five boards and five turnovers.
With little inside impact – the Bears outscored UCLA 42-28 in the paint – the Bruins had to rely on their outside game.
Instead of going to Roll, though, they went to senior forward Nikola Dragovic.
After hitting a 3-pointer to give UCLA it’s last lead at 44-42, Dragovic took bad shot after bad shot, finishing with eight points on 3-of-12 shooting, making just 1-of-8 3-pointers.
Roll had his first second-half shot attempt with 10:49 left, his first points with 7:42 left.
“It didn’t feel like they played me any different, the team kind of went away from me,” said Roll, who led all scorers with 27 points and became the 49th Bruin to reach the 1,000-point plateau. “They tried to get it going elsewhere, other people were taking shots. It was just frustrating. I had it going, and I had it going late, too. I wanted to keep it going.”
But UCLA could not pull a rabbit out of a hat.
Couldn’t pry itself from Cal’s teeth.