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Ben Howland just keeps winning with Bruins

UCLA may not be Final-Four bound, but with the coach in charge, it is bound to show some true grit.

February 20, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Watching a Ben Howland team take the floor after consecutive losses is like watching a punished child take the backyard after standing in the corner.

The sigh of relief is palpable. The need to please is visible. The energy expended is nuts.

These Bruins may not be a Final Four team, but they are still a Last Straw team, pushing back hardest when they are pushed to the edge, capable of greatness even when on the verge of collapse.

This was Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, against conference-leading Washington, the Bruins coming off consecutive losses for only the third time in the last four seasons.

They didn't lose three in a row then. They haven't lost three in a row now.

These Bruins may not be a Final Four team, but they are still a Final Word team, downing the Huskies, 85-76, with their best Howland grimace.

They bumped them. They grinded them. They broke open a 55-all tie by forcing a string of turnovers and missed layups, countering with smart passes and safe shots.

The game was won when Alfred Aboya, so dehydrated from flu that doctors could not find a place to stick an intravenous fluid line at halftime, still managed to pop every vein out of the frustrated Huskies necks.

Thirteen points, 11 rebounds, and an uncertain postgame destination.

"They may be taking him to the hospital," said Howland, shortly before Aboya met with the media.

The game ended when, in the final seconds, Washington senior Jon Brockman cheaply threw down Bruins freshman Jru Holiday, the quick and classy Huskies reduced to losers in a bar brawl.

"I'm really proud of our team," said Howland. "We prepared with a lot of energy and physicalness, and it showed."

The Bruins were coming off a sweep in the desert that could have cost them a decent NCAA tournament seeding.

They entered a full arena surrounded with questions about the impossibility of four consecutive Final Fours, of the difficulty in maintaining a consistent winner in an era where most college players only stay about two semesters.

All those wonders are legitimate, all those fears are true.

"This is UCLA basketball," Howland announced over the video scoreboard during the game.

And sure enough, even Thursday, that was a mixed message.

This was UCLA basketball:

Darnell Gant rumbled down on a one-on-one fast break, Aboya hustled back, bumped him with his chest, knocked him back to Wilshire Boulevard, the shot clanked off. Moments later, Josh Shipp hit a three-point shot to give the Bruins a 10-point lead.

This was UCLA basketball:

Late in the first half, the floor was suddenly populated by three Bruins freshmen, none of them starters, Malcolm Lee, Jerime Anderson and Drew Gordon.

What happened? What do you think? Lee was stripped. Gordon missed a layup. Lee missed a bad turnaround. Washington scored a couple of baskets.

Twenty wins, yet nightly inconsistency with new guys in new systems, and you wonder if Howland has ever worked harder.

Then you look around at the banners at Pauley Pavilion and, for the first time, you wonder about what is not there.

There is nothing, of course, to signify UCLA's three consecutive trips to the Final Four.

And that's too bad, because, in the current college environment, one could argue that three consecutive Final Fours is every bit as impressive as one old-fashioned national championship.

"Yeah, it's hard," said Howland this week, as if finally realizing it himself. "It's really hard."

Let's put it in a way that many Los Angeles college sports fans would understand.

Remember how USC football Coach Pete Carroll was so miffed when Mark Sanchez left school early?

Howland has to deal with that sort of blow two or three times every year.

"The landscape is so different now in terms of losing players," Howland said. "There's a lot more to deal with."

You know how the USC folks fret over losing an offensive coordinator?

Howland has lost his best offensive player two of the last three seasons.

"In college football you can plan your recruiting," said Howland. "In college basketball, you have no idea what's going to happen."

You want to know where all of Ben Howland's talent goes? Two words. Lakers Bench.

Yeah, the team with the best record in the NBA has won with two guys who couldn't leave Howland fast enough, Jordan Farmar and Trevor Ariza.

"At the end of the day, it's a good problem to have," Howland said. "I get great satisfaction with the opportunity to coach young men who go on and do well in life."

They go on, Howland sticks around, and slowly we're seeing that even making three consecutive Final Fours is bigger than losing in all of them.

"This team can still have a special year," Howland said before the game. "But we need to step up, and step up now."

Thursday was occasionally a trudge and sometimes a stumble, but it was a step, and it was definitely up.

This town's best pure coach knows no other way, and accepts no other direction.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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