LAS VEGAS — Since the ceiling at the MGM Garden Arena is so much lower than most college basketball venues, UCLA point guard Larry Drew II encountered a problem he wasn't expecting during Thursday's Pac-12 quarterfinal.
The cube-shaped scoreboard was so wide and so low to the court he seldom could see the time or score.
"Eventually, I just started trying to memorize the score," Drew said with a chuckle. "It was definitely a little distracting."
The score only became close enough to be relevant because of the most brilliant performance of Drew's improbable senior season. The senior guard scored a season-high 20 points on only 10 shots, keeping UCLA competitive long enough for the Bruins to rally from a 15-point second-half deficit and eke out an 80-75 win.
The biggest play from Drew was the decision he made coming around a high ball screen from Travis Wear with UCLA leading by one and less than 15 seconds to play. Seven-footer Jordan Bachynski took a step toward Drew to keep him out of the lane, so Drew whipped a pass to Wear, who had just enough space to knock down a pick-and-pop jumper that extended the Bruins' lead to three.
Prior to that sequence, it had been Drew's ability to shoot from the perimeter and finish at the rim that had helped carry the Bruins.
He sank a 3-pointer with five minutes to go to give UCLA its first lead since the opening minutes and buried another 3-pointer two minutes later to put the Bruins in front again, two shots that he almost certainly wouldn't have taken a couple months ago. Drew shot so infrequently and passed up so many open shots during the first half of the season that UCLA coach Ben Howland often had to pull him aside in practice and demand he start being more aggressive.
"Coach Howland showed confidence in him and really made him take those shots, make or miss," freshman Jordan Adams said. "It makes a huge difference. Before, people were just keying on me and Shabazz and leaving other guys open. Now with Larry and Kyle [Anderson] knocking down shots, it makes us so much harder to guard."
Drew is averaging a Pac-12-leading 7.7 assists this season and has scored 10.4 points per game since Feb. 1, numbers that earned him first-team all-conference honors this season. That's a far cry from the insecure, turnover-prone junior who left North Carolina in the middle of the 2010-11 season after freshman Kendall Marshall replaced him in the starting lineup.
UCLA could have landed Drew out of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, but Howland chose not to wait for Drew to make up his mind, accepting a commitment from another highly regarded point guard, Jerime Anderson, instead. Howland has since admitted that was a mistake, one that he moved quickly to rectify when Drew was looking for a new school in spring 2011.
Since Drew underachieved at North Carolina and received so much scorn for leaving in the middle of the season, Howland's decision to hand Drew his starting point guard job this season was unpopular with both fans and colleagues. He even admitted earlier this month that he received "snide remarks" after taking a chance on Drew.
Nobody's laughing at Drew anymore, though, not after he has engineered the best season by a UCLA point guard since the days of Jordan Farmar and Darren Collison. It remains to be seen if he has a pro future the way those two did, but for right now, Drew is just enjoying the success that he wasn't sure would ever come when he left North Carolina.
"When I got to North Carolina, I felt like my whole overall game was halted in order to fit into the team game there," Drew said. "You can't help but to have some doubts. It's life and they start to creep in. But you have to learn to stay positive and to believe in yourself."
Drew believes in himself now – and with good reason.
Two years ago, he was a bust. Two months ago, he still was passing up open shots. On Thursday, he was UCLA's best player.