SEATTLE — Once again, Charles O'Bannon was the rising tide, lifting all Bruins.
"If there were any questions before tonight, there's isn't anymore," said UCLA center Jelani McCoy after O'Bannon's career-high 31 points carried UCLA to a frenetic 87-85 comeback victory over Washington on Thursday.
"Just look at this game--he's leaving no doubt. He's the Pac-10 player of the year."
Player of the year? For about 30 minutes Thursday, as he rallied the Bruins from a 16-point first-half deficit before 7,836 at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, O'Bannon was a player for the ages, a scorer without limit, and a leader with a simple, searing goal.
"The Pac-10 player of the year award won't win any tournament games, it won't get you to the next level," said O'Bannon, who made 13 of 17 shots, cementing his claim for the league's top accolade and earning a locker-room hug from Seattle SuperSonic Coach George Karl.
"It doesn't really concern me. I want this team to win tournament games--as long as we win, that's what makes me happy."
But Thursday, with the Bruins hoping to maintain momentum heading into next week's NCAA tournament opener, against a Husky team that played with the desperation of a team barely alive in its hunt for an NCAA bid, O'Bannon needed to score for UCLA (20-7, 14-3) to get its eighth consecutive victory and clinch its ninth consecutive 20-win season.
Which is what he did, scoring 25 of his points in the last 25:36 of the game, immediately after Washington had barreled to a 47-31 lead.
J.R. Henderson's season-high 13 rebounds in the wake of McCoy's foul trouble and in the face of the Huskies' huge front line was crucial, McCoy's 14 first-half points helped blunt the Washington attack, and Toby Bailey's strange, 18-point, nine-assist, six-turnover performance was something to behold.
But, in a mirror image of his towering 24-point game to lift UCLA at Arizona last month, it was O'Bannon who was indispensable.
O'Bannon's crowning moment came with less than two minutes to play, the shot clock ticking down below five, the crowd roaring, and the Bruins up by a single point, 79-78.
Starting with a slow dribble at the top of the key, with Donald Watts slapping at the ball, O'Bannon took two steps to the right, then suddenly launched himself spinning left, stopped himself in the lane, and buried a wide-open six-footer against a stunned Husky defense to give UCLA an 81-78 lead.
"I work on that every day in practice," O'Bannon said. "I had confidence--that's the bottom line."
O'Bannon's previous career high was 27--which came last season against USC.
For Washington, O'Bannon's heroics came just in time to end their NCAA dreams, even after senior guard Jamie Booker's career-high 27 points.
Washington (16-10, 9-8) came out of the blocks with desperate energy--and an offensive attack that seemed to overwhelm the Bruins for the first 15 minutes.
The Huskies' 52 first-half points was the third most scored against UCLA in an opening half this season--Stanford scored 57 in its 48-point massacre in January, and Kansas put up 54 in its victory at Pauley Pavilion in December.
"They came out playing hard, with incredible intensity," Henderson said of the Huskies. "We could've easily put our heads down, said they're playing too hard, we're probably going to lose. But this team just keeps on going--there's a fire in us that drives us."
Said point guard Cameron Dollar, who agreed that the attitude of this team is reminding him of the 1995 national-title squad: "It's coming back. I know we haven't arrived, but there's a calming feeling on this team."
McCoy matched the Huskies' early energy, converting on all but one of his first-half shots, including several quick spins around Todd MacCulloch or Patrick Femerling on the post.
It took a 13-1 UCLA run late in the half (during which the Bruins made all five of their field-goal tries) to close the gap to eight, 52-44, at halftime.
The Bruins finally caught Washington midway through the second half, see-sawed through the next few minutes, then let O'Bannon's energy take over.
"I told our team that, in some ways, this was our biggest game of the year," Bruin Coach Steve Lavin said. "It was important to keep our snowball heading in the right direction."