Dijon Thompson's right hand throbbed with pain. He has 13 stitches in the webbing between his index and middle fingers, which were taped together. Thompson hates that tape and says it makes him uncertain of his shot. He hadn't practiced for nine days so he got out of breath.
He was also playing a new position, a skinny senior being transformed from a wispy, graceful wing into a "4," a power forward.
Yet Thompson, UCLA's only senior starter, reveled in all these hardships Saturday.
After missing the previous game because of his injured hand, he returned to score a career-high 29 points on 12-for-14 shooting. He had a game-high 10 rebounds. He made the decisive shot, a rattling 23-foot three-point basket with 44.6 seconds left that put UCLA ahead for good in its 81-79 victory over Michigan in front of 10,782, the largest crowd of the season at Pauley Pavilion.
Many of them had come to honor legendary Bruin guard Gail Goodrich, whose number was retired in a moving halftime ceremony. All of them were standing at the end to applaud Thompson.
"I think Dijon Thompson had his best game as a Bruin," UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.
"I felt really, really comfortable," Thompson said. "I felt different today."
As they did against Pepperdine last Saturday, the Bruins (6-1) needed to make a frenzied comeback late in the game. After leading the Wolverines (6-5) by as many as eight points in the first half and by 63-57 with 9:57 left in the game, UCLA became flustered and flattened on defense until Michigan found itself ahead by six, 73-67, with 4:30 left.
There were layups and tip-ins and silly UCLA fouls that Michigan converted into free throws until suddenly there was a bench full of maize-and-blue-wearing players whooping and hollering, certain they were on the brink of a gutsy victory.
"We could have used it," said Michigan guard Dion Harris, who scored 17 points.
Over the last two weeks the Wolverines have lost four players, including three starters, to injuries, but still Tommy Amaker's undermanned team was overpowering UCLA inside with 6-11 junior Chris Hunter scoring 21 points and 6-11 sophomore Courtney Sims adding 17 points and seven rebounds -- five offensive and two that were converted into put-back layups.
"Defensively we were really, really inept," Howland said. "Both in our man-to-man and in our zone. We were beaten on the boards in the second half."
But at the end, during the last four minutes, the eager Bruins caught their breath and began swarming the Wolverines with ferocious purpose. After Michigan went ahead, 75-69, UCLA forced consecutive turnovers.
Freshman point guard Jordan Farmar made two free throws. Thompson slipped free under the basket to score on a rebound of an Arron Afflalo miss. Center Michael Fey, struggling with sore knees and an achy shoulder, made a free throw. Farmar made another foul shot to tie the score, 75-75, then Michigan guard John Andrews made two free throws to put his team up, 77-75, with 56.3 seconds left.
That's when Howland called a play for Thompson.
Thompson had reopened a cut on his hand two weeks ago against Boston College. He missed last Saturday's game and didn't come back to practice until Wednesday.
Even though Thompson said his hand was "real sore" and he "hates" the feel of the taped-together fingers, Howland counted on him for the big shot.
"It's a special play that we can't run for anybody else at the four spot but Dijon," Howland said.
Farmar set the screen. "I held it and held it," Farmar said, "then I saw the ball go over my head. I didn't know it was good until I heard the crowd."
"I felt pretty confident," Thompson said. "Coach said when I came off the screen if it wasn't there don't force it, but it was wide open."
The Bruins leave Southern California for the first time this season to play at nationally ranked Michigan State on Tuesday. After Christmas they open Pacific 10 Conference play at Oregon State and Oregon. "This was a big win for us," Afflalo said. "Real big."