LAS VEGAS — Thirty minutes after the euphoria of UCLA's dramatic 66-64 victory over Arizona in the Pac-12 semifinals, Larry Drew II trudged back to the locker room, head buried in his jersey and tears rolling down his cheeks.
It no longer mattered to Drew that UCLA had beaten the Wildcats for a third straight time or advanced to the Pac-12 title game. All he cared about was what he had just overheard UCLA athletic trainer Laef Morris share with coach Ben Howland after the Bruins' postgame news conference.
Freshman guard Jordan Adams, UCLA's second-leading scorer and the hero of Friday's semifinal win, will miss the rest of the season after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his right foot defending Solomon Hill on the final play of the game. UCLA players had seen Adams limping off the court and leaving the locker room on crutches to get an X-ray, but Drew admitted that the devastating results caught him off guard.
"I'm so proud of Jordan, not just for the way he played tonight but for everything he's done all season," Drew said, still fighting back tears. "I know Jordan's going to be OK, he's going to bounce back strong and he's going to get better, but with everything we've been through this season, it feels like we can't get a break."
The news of Adams' injury is the biggest punch to the gut UCLA has sustained in a season that has featured plenty of body blows.
It started with the scorn and ridicule that followed a deflating November home loss to lightly regarded Cal Poly. Next came the December transfers of former starters Joshua Smith and Tyler Lamb. And finally there was the persistent talk that Ben Howland's job was in jeopardy even as the Bruins righted themselves and won the outright Pac-12 title on the final day of the regular season.
What makes the Adams injury especially cruel is he had just played perhaps the best game of his career in the biggest game of UCLA's season.
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With Arizona putting athletic, long-armed Nick Johnson on Larry Drew II and tailoring its entire defense toward keeping the UCLA point guard out of the lane, Adams was able to take advantage of his size and strength advantage on Mark Lyons. He scored 24 points and came up with a pair of key late-game steals, rallying the Bruins from a double-digit second-half deficit for the second straight game.
Even Adams initially appeared to have no idea the severity of the injury he sustained. Though he was in too much pain to go through the postgame handshake line after Hill's potential game-tying jump shot rimmed out, he pumped his fist to the crowd leaving the floor and insisted before he went for X-rays that his foot was "fine" and he "just twisted it."
Before UCLA players learned the severity of Adams' injury, they reflected on how much of a pleasant surprise he has been this season. The least heralded member of a recruiting class that included three five-star recruits, Adams has flourished despite an atypical basketball body and modest athleticism, averaging 15 points per game and showing an ability to hit from the perimeter or get to the rim.
"The first time I played with him was this summer, and I hadn't heard much about him," UCLA forward Travis Wear said. "I saw him play, and I was like, wow, I'm going to like playing with this kid.
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"He scores so easily, he knows the game and I don't know if people really give him enough credit for how good he is defensively. He's not super athletic, but I think he's our best defender. He has the quickest hands I've ever seen."
Hearing Wear run down Adams' list of attributes has to be maddening now for UCLA fans because they know they won't see him on the floor again until next fall. The Bruins have shown unexpected resilience before this season, but this will be by far their biggest challenge.
The success UCLA has enjoyed during its current run of nine wins in 11 games is largely predicated on how many different ways it can score. Teams who focus on stopping Drew's dribble penetration or Shabazz Muhammad's drives often pay for it because the Wear twins are deadly on pick-and-pop jumpers, Kyle Anderson has gotten more aggressive as the year has gone on and Adams can erupt at any moment.
Remove Adams from that mix and that's one less scoring threat opposing defenses have to worry about – and not one that will be easy for UCLA to replace.
The Bruins only have eight scholarship players and two of the reserves are big men. The only options Howland has are to move athletic but erratic Norman Powell into the starting lineup or sacrifice quickness for size by inserting David Wear into the starting lineup and sliding Anderson from power forward to the wing.
Neither of those options are preferable, especially with less than a week to go before UCLA's first NCAA tournament game, which is probably part of the reason Drew was so distraught upon learning the severity of his teammate's injury.
He put on a brave face but deep down he has to know this is crushing for UCLA's chances of a deep NCAA tournament run.
"Jordan really sacrificed his entire body for the entire game to help us win," Drew said. "He's a tough kid. I'm sure if it was up to him, he would probably want to come out tomorrow and still play. That's just the type of player he is."
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