LOS ANGELES-It was a Hail Mary, at best.
UCLA's two best players, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, were suspended three hour before game time Thursday night, erasing 40 percent of the Bruins' offensive production. Coach Steve Alford, left with a rotation of just six players that boasted more than 50 minutes of career playing time, was forced to reach deep into his bench.
And almost immediately, the Bruins' shorthanded lineup looked doomed. They shot 28 percent in the first half. They were outrebounded and overmatched. They fell into sloppy habits on both ends and could barely get the ball inside. And up against an Oregon team that was desperate for a resume-boosting victory, the odds were stacked against them. A Hail Mary. At best.
But there it was, the desperation heave they'd been hoping for, the unlikely shot from the most unlikely of players after an unlikely hero had emerged in the minutes before. David Wear, catching a long heave from his twin brother, Travis, with slightly more than a second remaining was wide open. He launched a prayer. It was answered.
Wear's 3-pointer sent UCLA to overtime, after a rollercoaster ride started off the tracks and was righted just in the nick of time. But a shorthanded lineup without its two best players eventually had to run out of steam. In double overtime, UCLA's prayers fell just short, 87-83.
All season long, UCLA performed at or near full strength, with Travis Wear's early-season appendectomy and a knee injury to little-used big man Wanaah Bail serving as the only slight setbacks. But on Thursday, UCLA was dealt two mammoth blows in succession and spent the next 35 or so minutes just trying to regain its balance.
With Anderson and Adams on the bench, dressed in black UCLA polos and gray pants, all seemed right for UCLA to fade away quickly. Both of the Bruins' leading scorers sat on the sidelines, looking on helplessly and barking out at the court. For most of regulation, nothing seemed to work.
Still, overmatched and relying on freshmen Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine, UCLA fought. With seven minutes remaining, Norman Powell, who scored 13 of his 14 points in the second half, cut Oregon's lead to five with a 3-point play. It was a valiant effort, it seemed, but still too far-fetched, still too much for a suddenly young nucleus to overcome.
Then, in the final three minutes, Bryce Alford grew up in front of the now-roaring crowd, which held out hope that a miracle was still possible. He drew a foul on a 3-point attempt and knocked down all three free throws to cut the deficit to two. A minute later, with the game slipping away again, he knocked down two more. On the next possession, he caught a pass in the corner and pumped, as a Ducks defender flew past him. He settled and drilled a calm 3. Oregon's lead was again at two.
Each push from Oregon was met with a tougher one from Alford, who finished with 31 points. But none were more important than the prayer he launched from behind the arc, hands in his face, with 11 seconds left, which fell smoothly and begged the question of who in the building actually believed.
No doubt, few would say they did 10 seconds later, when a chaotic inbound play landed in Wear's hands, and he fired up a picture-perfect, 26-foot buzzer-beating jumper that sank just as effortlessly.
Destiny certainly seemed on UCLA's side, with each overtime punch from Oregon met with a response from the Bruins, who suddenly found themselves fighting as underdogs. The slugfest would go to a second overtime. But soon, with a tired lineup running on adrenaline and its two stars unable to save it, the answers soon ran out.
Down four with time expiring in the second overtime, an off-balance 3 from Alford clanged off the back iron. An offensive rebound went to Norman Powell, but he lost control.
The little lineup that could, finally couldn't anymore. One Hail Mary just wasn't enough.