Fri Dec 03 01:14am EST
For a few fleeting seconds, UCLA had Kansas on the ropes, momentum on its side and a terrific opportunity to notch the marquee win it desperately needed to demonstrate that this year's team is NCAA tournament-caliber.
Then a controversial last-second whistle extended Kansas' 64-game home winning streak and condemned the Bruins to an agonizing loss.
Needing a defensive stop to force overtime after Tyler Honeycutt's pull-up three tied the score at 76 with four seconds left, UCLA appeared to get that when Marcus Morris lost control of the ball and then Mario Little's desperation runner missed the mark. Instead, referees ruled that Malcolm Lee bumped Little vying for the loose ball and fouled before the shot, enabling the Kansas guard to sink the first free throw with seven-tenths of a second remaining to seal a 77-76 victory.
"I think he just bumped me," Little told reporters after the game. "When I first knew I was fouled and they called it, free throws is what I do. I just stepped up and knocked it down. I knew I had two chances. Sink the first one and then let them deal with it."
Whether the game-clinching call was correct or not likely depends on what officiating philosophy you prefer. Those who believe a game should be called the same way in the final minute as the first 39 might have thought the contact was sufficient to warrant a whistle, but those who would rather referees let the players determine the outcome probably were outraged the game didn't go to overtime.
There was no doubt which side of the debate UCLA coach Ben Howland fell on Thursday night. The typically even-keeled Howland walked toward the end of his bench, screamed in disgust and slammed a water bottle down on an vacant chair, nearly taking out video coordinator Jason Ludwig in the process.
"Really, really poor way to end a game," Howland told reporters after watching the replay. "Not a foul that's usually called."
The uncharacteristically strong reaction from Howland signified how significant a victory this could have been for UCLA (4-3).
Since the Bruins already lost to Villanova and Virginia Commonwealth in the Preseason NIT last week, they're still looking for a nonleague marquee win to strengthen their postseason resume. The team that outplayed top-five Kansas for much of the night is certainly NCAA tournament-caliber, but there's no guarantee that a young squad with no seniors can sustain that level of effort and execution the rest of the season.
The optimistic view for UCLA is that several young players made tremendous strides in a game few gave them a chance to win. Honeycutt had a breakout performance with a career-high 33 points on 11-of-15 shooting, while freshman Josh Smith stayed out of foul trouble and exploited Kansas' lack of low-post defense for 17 points of his own.
UCLA has a chance to snap a three-game losing streak and get back on track with some winnable home games up ahead before a crucial matchup with undefeated BYU in Anaheim later this month.
It's possible the Bruins build on this performance, get on a roll against lesser Pac-10 competition and return to the NCAA tournament with ease. It's also possible they remain inconsistent and a judgment call by a referee in December turns out to be the difference between an NCAA bid and a spot in the dreaded NIT.