March 15, 1998
ATLANTA (AP) - The UCLA Bruins proved that they can make clutch free throws. And that's the main reason they're moving on in the NCAA tournament following an 85-82 victory Sunday over No. 3 seed Michigan in the second round of the South Regional.
Coming off the worst game of his career, Kris Johnson hit eight straight from the line over the final 37 seconds for the sixth-seeded Bruins (24-8). It was the perfect complement to the late, 4-for-4 effort put together by fellow seniors Toby Bailey and J.R. Henderson in a 65-62 first-round win over Miami.
"I've been through that situation throughout my career, where I've had to hit big free throws," Johnson said. "I wanted to be there. I'm one of three seniors on this team, and I'm sure any of us would want to be in that situation."
The game between marquee programs lived up to its billing - a run-and-gun affair with 3-pointers launching, crossover dribbles and tomahawk dunks.
It also had an exciting finish, as Michigan (25-9) cut a late eight-point deficit to two on three occasions in the final 30 seconds, only to see Johnson keep hitting his free throws.
It erased memories of his 1-for-6, 3-point game in Friday's first-round win, and helped the seniors advance to the round of 16 for the third time in their careers.
"After the last game, I knew Kris was definitely going to have a big game today," Bailey said. "I was prepared for that. That doesn't surprise me at all."
Seeking a 12th national title - and the second for this group of seniors - UCLA will play Kentucky in the regional semifinals Friday in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Bailey finished with 19 points and six assists, Henderson had 13 points and eight rebounds, but it was Johnson who highlighted a tight game over the final seconds to cap a 25-point night.
Michigan responded to each set of his free throws, once with a 3-pointer by Jerod Ward, once with a layup by Louis Bullock and the final time with two Robert Traylor free throws.
After Johnson's final free throws put UCLA ahead 85-81, Traylor was fouled with 1.1 seconds left. He made his first free throw, then intentionally missed the second. But the Wolverines were called for a lane violation and their seven-game winning streak was history.
It seemed unlikely that a team like UCLA would do it.
Hampered by the suspension and eventual departure of center Jelani McCoy, a thin, inexperienced bench and long bouts of inconsistency all season, many figured the Bruins would fold early in this tournament.
But against Michigan, the Bruins looked more like the 1995 title team than the one that lost by more than 30 points to Duke and North Carolina and failed to inspire much enthusiasm among the Pauley Pavilion faithful.
"Over the last year and a half, they've shown a lot of resiliency and character," said coach Steve Lavin, who took over last season when Jim Harrick was suddenly fired. "They've really stuck together. They've had some tough times, but they've always come back. I thought today was reflective of their career."
Early in the game, Henderson sank a 3-pointer and ran down the court shaking his head and smiling. In the end, it was UCLA's swagger and perseverance that won out.
On defense, Henderson and Johnson sagged on Traylor - the 300-pounder the Bruins weren't supposed to have an answer for. In foul trouble throughout the second half, Traylor finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds, but UCLA never let him take over the game.
The loss spoiled his season-long Final Four prediction and sent his future into limbo. The junior has said he won't return unless interim coach Brian Ellerbe is rehired.
"As I said yesterday, I will never regret anything I said," Traylor said. "I felt positive. This is a great team. We're not going to get there, but I don't regret what I said."
Michigan trailed by 11 points at halftime and made several runs, but never took the lead.
Once, trailing 68-66, Ward missed a 3-pointer that seemed to hang on the rim forever, then saw his follow-up shot clanked on the iron three times before bounding out.
The Bruins responded with an 8-0 run for a 76-66 lead with two minutes left. But Michigan sandwiched a pair of Traylor free throws and three Bullock layups around two missed free throws by Johnson - his last misses of the night - to cut the deficit to three.
That's when Michigan decided to start fouling, allowing Johnson to finish 11-for-13 from the line and atone for the terrible effort against Miami.
Brigham Young transfer Robbie Reid kept Michigan alive in the first half, hitting four of his six 3-pointers to finish with 18 points. Ward had 16 as did Bullock, but he shot just 7-for-27 from the field.
With the loss, Ellerbe is that much closer to learning whether he'll be offered a permanent contract.
"It's tough to put into words," Ellerbe said when asked about the season. "I thought we proved a lot of doubters wrong, which is kind of satisfying."