Reeves Nelson walked into a throng of UCLA students a conquering hero, his arms thrown into the air, swallowed whole by the blue hole.
Tyler Trapani – John Wooden’s great-grandson – hit a throw-away bucket with the seconds
ticking off, making head coach Ben Howland break down into tears.
The 1971 UCLA national championship team was honored, introduced by legendary coach Denny Crum.
Oh, and the Bruins just happened to play their most thoroughly dominant game of the year, a 71-49 demolition of Arizona that ties the team atop the Pac-10 conference.
Now Pauley Pavilion goes under wraps for a year, renovations sending UCLA on the road even for home games next year.
What a send-off.
“I told them, ‘This is going to be our best win of the year,’ (on Friday),” Howland said. “And it was.”
In putting together two complete halves for the first time perhaps all season, the Bruins looked nothing like the team that lost at Arizona by 11 earlier this year.
On that Thursday night in late-January, Wildcat forward Derrick Williams had his way, scoring 22 points and generally looking like the Pac-10 player of the year favorite.
Reeves Nelson remembered that night, and he reminded Howland of it on Thursday, after the Bruins defeated Arizona State 71-53.
Nelson walked straight up Howland and demanded – well, “strongly requested,” he said – to guard Williams on Saturday in the pivotal matchup.
Even Nelson, though, full of bravado and tattoos, could not have expected the performance he delivered. In addition to scoring a career-high 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, Nelson played full-throttle on Williams, holding the potential top-five NBA draft pick to 15 points, including just two in the second half.
“I’ve been told that some people say I can’t play defense, really,” Nelson said. “I just take that very personally. I’m still working on my help-side, but I’ve always been very confident in my man-to-man defense. If Derrick Williams is a top-five pick in the NBA, and I hold him to two points in the second half, then I’m proud of my own effort.”
Nelson was at his best when UCLA needed it most.
After sophomore small forward Tyler Honeycutt threw down a slam dunk for two of his 15 points with just less than nine minutes to play in the first half, Nelson exploded, scoring the team’s next seven points in less than two minutes.
Freshman center Joshua Smith took his lead, scoring seven quick points himself, and the Bruins went from three down to nine up in less than six minutes.
“I can’t say enough about Reeves,” Howland said. “This was an unbelievably complete game. To have that many rebounds, that many points, and to play that great defense against arguably the best player in the conference?”
UCLA (21-8, 12-4) parlayed the first-half success and a rousing crowd – most of the packed house delivered the “Blue Out” that the marketing department called for – into ruthless efficiency in the second half. The Bruins maintained a double-digit lead for much of the half, and after Arizona (23-6, 12-4) put on a mini-run, cutting the lead from 21 to nine with 4:36 left, UCLA closed things out with a 14-1 run the rest of the way.
“We’ve had trouble all year putting two halves together,” Honeycutt said. “I think we made a statement. It boosts our confidence not winning by five. It lets us know how good we can be.”
It also reminded quite a few in attendance of how good they once were.
As much as Saturday’s game was about the present – and UCLA’s present is pretty good, the team having won 18-of-22 games – it was just as much about the past.
The ’71 team was serenaded by cheers, Pauley Pavilion erupting for Sidney Wicks and Co., and there were Wooden tributes aplenty.
None more fitting than at the end, when a 3-point attempt by walk-on Jack Haley dropped ever so softly into Trapani’s hands. Trapani corralled the ball, and mustering as much composure as he could, gently lofted the ball off the glass and into the basket.
The last points in the venerated building, the House that Wooden Built, for more than a year.
“I pray a lot,” Howland said, once more breaking into tears. “…and to have Trapani make that last shot means so much to me. You have no idea. And I know it does to his family. You couldn’t have written it any better.
“This was a great day for us.”