LOS ANGELES -- At long last, the UCLA Bruins resembled the team everyone thought they would be.
The first six weeks of the season have brought nothing but big question marks for UCLA, with bad losses, ugly wins and unimpressive performances taking the luster off a team that had been pegged as a contender for a Final Four run after landing the nation’s top recruiting class.
A 97-94 overtime victory over No. 7 Missouri on Friday night at Pauley Pavilion should help calm the storm that has surrounded coach Ben Howland, who has found his way to the hot seat, and the Bruins, who before Friday seemed to be underachieving.
This was UCLA’s first victory over a ranked team and first victory of the season that would be considered respectable by the nation. That it came in a nationally televised game and in thrilling fashion means it will receive notice and should get the Bruins (10-3) back into the top 25, where they began the season.
“I think our play definitely answered a lot of those questions,” guard Kyle Anderson said. “This is such a big win for us, and we can’t go back to those losses from before. We certainly showed the country what we have right now.”
Early on, the Bruins hadn’t shown the country much. They started with a good win over Indiana State but struggled against UC Irvine. Then came a loss to Georgetown, an ugly win over Georgia and a dreadful home loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Tyler Lamb and Joshua Smith transferred, and it seemed the program was in shambles. The Bruins steadily improved and won four in a row, but critics pointed to a soft schedule. Friday’s win over Missouri (10-2) extended UCLA’s win streak to five and, more importantly, restored order.
“I think this is one of the biggest wins that we could possibly get,” said forward Shabazz Muhammad, who scored seven of UCLA’s nine points in overtime. “They are a top-10 team, and you can tell they are a really good team. We’re right back where we wanted to be to start Pac-12 play.”
Much of that is because of Muhammad. The national high school player of the year last season, Muhammad came to UCLA as touted as any Bruins freshman in the past decade. His season has been mostly disappointing, however, as he started it on the bench, ineligible, and then struggled to work himself into game shape.
The past four games, he has scored 25, 21, 27 and 27 points, but Friday night on the national stage, he arrived as a prime-time player. He had a highlight-reel dunk in the second half when the game was tight, led a fast break and made a jump shot as UCLA erased a nine-point deficit in the final 4:04 of regulation, and then showed the killer instinct that all great scorers have during overtime.
Muhammad buried a 3-pointer for the first points of the extra period, then delivered the key blow with 1:01 to play when he took a pass from Larry Drew II and launched a 3-pointer without hesitation. Nothing but net and a 95-93 UCLA lead.
“I like taking the big shots,” Muhammad said.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of UCLA’s performance, and the biggest indication that the team is maturing, is the way the Bruins handled the momentum shifts. There were plenty of them. The Bruins led by 10 midway through the first half, but Missouri came back to tie it at halftime.
The Bruins opened a 63-54 lead to start the second half, but Missouri turned the tables and took an 86-77 lead with 5:34 to play. The Bruins staged the type of rally to erase that deficit and erase any notion that this is the same old UCLA team that lost to Cal Poly on the same floor just more than a month ago.
“I’m really pleased with how our team handled being down late,” Howland said. “[The Tigers] were down three different times big and came back and took leads from us. It was great to see our team do it at the end and really fight their way to get an important victory.”
It’s important because it gives UCLA a quality win on its résumé, and that will come in handy come tournament selection time. It’s important because it keeps UCLA’s momentum going as the Bruins prepare to open Pac-12 play Thursday against California.
And it’s important because it gives UCLA some hope that this will not be yet another lost season.
“It gives us tons of confidence,” Anderson said. “We have a group of guys who are mentally tough. We never stopped believing we were a good team and we kept fighting every day, and that’s exactly what we did, and we showed it tonight.”