The top two seeds in the Oakland Regional advanced to Saturday’s final. UCLA’s path was vastly different than how Memphis got to this point.
Fresh off one of the most dramatic comebacks in NCAA tournament history, the second-seeded Bruins (30-6) meet the Tigers (33-3) in the lone regional final featuring the two top seeds.
While Memphis has cruised to three straight 16-point victories in the tournament, UCLA has survived tight finishes in its last two games, including a 62-59 victory over Alabama in the second round.
That victory paled in comparison to UCLA’s improbable 73-71 comeback win over Gonzaga on Thursday in the regional semifinals. The Bruins trailed by as many as 17 points and never led until the final seconds, having scored the game’s last 11 points.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had six of those points, including a go-ahead layup with 10 seconds left after the Bruins stole the ball from the Bulldogs’ J.P. Batista. UCLA survived Batista’s missed desperation 15-footer at the buzzer to set off a raucous celebration.
UCLA’s rally from 13 points down at the break marked the second-largest halftime deficit overcome in an NCAA tournament game.
“We’ve done a great job of staying composed, staying together in tough situations,” UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said. “Last night was a perfect example and a good test for us.”
The Bruins, who have won 10 straight, are trying to reach their first Final Four since capturing their 11th NCAA championship in 1995. In order to do so, they’ll have to avenge an 88-80 loss to Memphis on Nov. 23 in New York.
The Tigers built a 17-point lead at halftime in that contest and were in control throughout, although Farmar led a late surge that made the final score respectable.
“(The score) is not indicative of the game,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “They crushed us.”
UCLA was unable to contain Memphis freshman Shawne Williams, who made his first seven shots and scored a season-high 26 points. Rodney Carney added 17 points and Darius Washington had 16 as the Tigers shot 53 percent.
The Bruins feel they have grown tremendously since that game, which was only their fourth of the season.
“Gaining that experience always helps,” said guard Arron Afflalo, who leads UCLA with 16.2 points per game. “It was our first game away from home. Our personnel was a little different, we had a few guys out. I think we’re a much different team.”
Memphis coach John Calipari watched a tape of the game late Thursday and does not believe it’s an indication of what to expect Saturday.
“When I watched it, I did not draw a whole lot from it, to be honest,” Calipari said. “But I watched it to say I watched it.”
Calipari singled out Farmar for his improvement since that game, even though the sophomore had a strong second half against the Tigers, scoring 23 of his season-high 28 points.
“Farmar’s doing a better job of controlling the game and getting people involved,” Calipari said. “And their young kids inside are doing better and better.”
Memphis, which has set a school record with its 33 wins, can reach the Final Four for the first time since 1985. The Tigers have been successful thanks greatly to strong defense, limiting opponents to 38 percent shooting this season.
That defense has been evident in Memphis’ last two wins. It held Bucknell to 37 percent shooting in a 72-56 second-round win and limited Bradley to 33 percent shooting in Thursday’s 80-64 victory.
Carney scored 23 points, Washington added 18 and Williams 12 as Memphis forced 17 turnovers on Thursday and got its running game untracked.
The Tigers average 81.0 points per game in comparison to the slower tempo favored by UCLA, which scores 68.8 points per contest.
“This team’s pretty complete,” said Afflalo about Memphis. “They’re long, wiry, athletic all around.”
The winner will face Texas or LSU next Saturday in Indianapolis.