Fifth-rated and abundantly frustrated, the UCLA Bruins finally were allowed to put aside the analysis and the acrimony, and actually start the 1996-97 season late Wednesday night.
But, with a new coach and the same players, it looked a lot like the end of the previous season. And for a while, once UCLA and Tulsa started battling, it seemed as if it never would end.
In overtime, in a bit of almost-midnight madness, Tulsa knocked off the Bruins, 77-76, the winning margin coming on a free throw with two seconds left by Zac Bennett.
UCLA tried a desperation length-of-the-court pass, but it went off Jelani McCoy's hand and out of bounds.
It took a furious Bruin rally to make up for a bushel of mistakes to get the game into overtime with the Golden Hurricane, in the first round of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament before 8,589 at Pauley Pavilion.
With just over two minutes left in regulation, Tulsa led, 70-62, but UCLA scored the last eight points of the second half, the last bucket coming with 46 seconds remaining on Kris Johnson's layup after his own steal when Tulsa was trying to wind the clock down.
In overtime, both teams traded baskets before Tulsa's last possession. On a rebound, Bennett was fouled with two seconds left and the score tied, 76-76. He missed his first free throw, but made his second.
McCoy scored 19 points for UCLA, which made only one basket over a span of more than 14 minutes in the second half. Shea Seals had 19 points to lead Tulsa.
It was the kickoff to Steve Lavin's interim season with the Bruins, and it began with high energy, and some good omens.
Lavin, who had been welcomed stonily by the Pauley crowd in the team's intrasquad game the day after Harrick's firing, received a warm welcome along with his team during introductions Wednesday night.
Then, on the opening tip, the Bruins almost had perfect execution of a play they worked on for 15 minutes in practice Tuesday.
Center McCoy controlled the tip straight to Cameron Dollar, who turned and tossed a lob to Charles O'Bannon at the rim, with O'Bannon barely missing a flying dunk.
But Toby Bailey immediately followed with a rebound slam, the noise level exploded, and the pace was frenetic for several more minutes.
The Bruins committed 10 turnovers in the first half, most of them on wild passes, and Tulsa had nine. UCLA contributed to Tulsa's skittishness by deflecting passes and diving to the floor often.
Dollar, though, stayed in control. He had five assists and no turnovers in the first 20 minutes.
At one point, McCoy, who had 11 points in the first half, scored eight consecutive points on the low block late in the period, giving UCLA a lead it held through the end of the half. The Bruins led at half, 36-33.
In the second half, UCLA began with a 14-6 run to take a 50-39 lead. But Tulsa came roaring back.
For the Bruins, this game was about much more than trying to get revenge against a team that upset them in the first round of the NCAA tournament three years ago. It was about running and jumping and competing, instead of sitting on the sidelines and reading about the controversy.
"There's been so much written and said about us even before the season's started, that it's almost like the pre-hype before a big boxing match," Dollar said before the game.
"It's gotten so overdone, we're just thinking, 'C'mon, let's start playing already. I mean, can we get a game going?'
"Before this season has even started, we've already been the focus of so much attention, we've been on television, we've been everywhere. It makes you just want to get this season going, finally. And maybe put a mark on this season."
Lavin, 32, who had his father, former University of San Francisco star Cappy Lavin, watching in the stands, is the fifth-youngest head coach in major college basketball. The youngest is 31-year-old Joe Dooley, of East Carolina.
For Lavin, this game was one more step in righting a Bruin ship that sunk against Princeton in last season's NCAA tournament and has had enough turmoil in the last two weeks to last another decade.
"I've told the team that I'm seeing this as a process and an experience that's very valuable," Lavin said Tuesday. "I'm not naive to the point where I think I have all the answers. I'm not arrogant to the point where I don't think that I'm going to fall down and have to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep working.
"I've told the team that they can expect from me what I expect from them, which is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keeping working day after day on the practice floor."
Last season, UCLA was the defending national champion, and had a tough November start in the Maui Invitational, losing two of three, setting the stage for the inconsistencies of the next four months of play.
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