There was a moment where anything seemed possible for UCLA.
California's Jorge Gutierrez went hard to the basket with a minute left in the first half and was called for a charging foul. Everyone leaped off the UCLA bench with the Bruins up by nine points.
There was a moment, however, when reality was apparent. During a timeout eight minutes into the second half, with players huddled around him, Bruins Coach Ben Howland slammed his clipboard to the court.
The downward arc continued, until the moment where California was headed to the Pacific Life Pacific 10 tournament championship game, after an 85-72 victory at Staples Center, and UCLA was headed home with a 14-18 record.
"They've had three losing seasons here in 60 years," freshman forward Reeves Nelson said. "No one wants their name attached to that."
Nelson and Co. will forever have it on their resume. Preventing a repeat performance now becomes the task.
The Bruins saw what a team needs to win the Pac-10 title. California (23-9), the regular season champion, shot 70% in the second half, leaning on senior guards Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson and Patrick Christopher.
The victory put California in the title game today against Washington. The Bruins will be at home, working on avoiding back-to-back losing seasons.
Asked if a second consecutive losing season would be harmful to a program that went to three Final Fours in the last four seasons, Coach Ben Howland said, "I'm not going do ‘what if.' What if … what if. We will get better. This program will not being staying down very long, that's for sure."
The Bears didn't stay down very long Friday.
They trailed, 39-30, when Gutierrez was called for the foul. The Bruins had done everything they needed to that point, then got careless. A rushed shot by Michael Roll and a turnover by Nelson allowed California to score the last five points of the half.
"You could feel the momentum changing," UCLA guard Malcolm Lee said.
By the time Howland spiked his clipboard, the momentum was moving the Bruins toward next season.
California made nine of its first 11 shots in the second half. Robertson scored 10 points in a 21-5 run for a 54-46 lead. Robertson (20 points), Randle (24 points) and Christopher (16 points) picked apart UCLA's man-to-man defense, pushing the lead to 64-51. The Bears nursed that to the end, making 13 of 14 free throws in the last five minutes.
"Basically we started playing the type of basketball we've been playing for the past month or so," California Coach Mike Montgomery said.
So did the Bruins.
UCLA shot 58% in the first half. Roll, whose career-high 27 points put him over 1,000 for his career, made four of his first five shots, as the Bruins led by as many as 10 points in the first half.
"We lost, my last game here," said Roll, who was part of two Final Four teams. "I don't really care about the career high or anything like that. We lost and I'm done."
UCLA shot 39% in the second half and was outrebounded, 27-23. The defense was such that the Bruins appeared to be nothing more than powder blue pylons as Robertson and Randle blew past. Of the Bears' 17 second half field goals, 12 were layups.
"We came out hard, because we knew this could be our last game," Nelson said. "Those three big guards wore us down."
Howland said to prevent that again he will look for an infusion of talent, despite having nine scholarship players returning and three recruits signed.
"We have three players who are coming in and I'm going to go out and recruit at least couple more," Howland said. "The key is recruiting."