The Gonzaga Bulldogs are 14-point favorites in Saturday’s Final Four matchup against UCLA, and deservedly so as the undefeated top overall seed against a team that needed to win a play-in game just to get into the field of 64.
But all the 14-point margin reminds me of is a 13-point lead that the Zags held over the Bruins 15 years ago in a Sweet 16 matchup, an advantage that would not hold over the final seven minutes of the game as UCLA came roaring back, winning in regulation and eventually advancing to the national title game.
If Gonzaga and UCLA were evenly matched heading to the game, and considering the Bulldogs finished the season as the no. 5 team in the AP poll compared to no. 7 for the Bruins, let’s say they were, then UCLA would have had a 3.6 percent chance of coming back to win that game, per Bart Torvik’s win probability calculator.
In one of the greatest endings in March Madness history, the Bruins did just that, so let’s take a walk down memory of that last stretch when UCLA began its greatest run of the 21st century.
I wasn’t into college basketball enough to filling out a bracket at that point, but my older brother did, so I was living vicariously through his. He had started college at Illinois that year, and his strategy was to simply counteract all of the East Coast bias around him and pick UCLA as far as possible. For much of this game, we were rueing that decision.
What I remember most is that Adam Morrison could not miss. He ended up making 10 of his 14 shots, and there was a certain inevitability about his performance that day. But Ryan Hollins got a block on Morrison with about five minutes left, and it was curtains from that point on. At the time, I remember being most jazzed for Jordan Farmar (we used to call him Pinky, and in hindsight, it’s not as affectionate as I once thought) and the Prince of Westwood, Luc Mbah a Moute. Rewatching the game this week, Hollins also had his fingerprints all over that final stretch.
Hollins has been living it up for the 2021 team too as he does studio work for CBS, and he shared of his memories from that game on the Straight Fire podcast this week.
I’m not sure when it became clear that UCLA really had a chance to win this, not just put a scare in Gonzaga, but I think it was when the Bruins started to press with about three minutes left. Darren Collison hadn’t yet made his name for this team but my goodness was he a pest, and I love a defensive substitution just to make the other team a little uncomfortable.
UCLA got Morrison trapped on the sideline, he had to give it up while still in the backcourt, a turnover results, and from then you knew something was cooking. Farmar was so damn confident on the ensuing possessions — undeservedly so, considering the crap shots he put up — but the Bruins felt like the aggressors at least, a rare occurrence for a group that had been trailing the whole game. Just get the ball moving towards the basket, and good things will happen.
What’s crazy is that the Zags didn’t really melt down. They got the ball to Morrison, they created decent shots, and they just didn’t fall. They even got some officiating luck! UCLA simply made more plays.
Like Farmar hitting a ridiculous running hook shot to pull within three. Or Hollins nailing both free throws in the single bonus to pull within one. Or Cedric Bozeman — a name I haven’t thought about probably in 15 years — taking the ball away from J.P. Batista as if it didn’t belong to him anymore, and Mbah a Moute finishing the play and earning UCLA the lead for the first time with 8.6 seconds left.
The Bruins have been part of some fun finishes in recent tournament history; the SMU game in 2015 is the first that comes to mind. There hasn’t been pure glee like that 2006 group until now. Maybe UCLA didn’t need to be in that position as a no. 2 seed, but it happened, and that team figured out how to get into the next round, just has these Bruins have.
According to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, the Bruins have a 10.3 percent chance of winning today. It’s low, but it’s still better than the odds they were working with 15 years ago.