UCLA's Howland keeping the faith

LOS ANGELES -- Ben Howland, the son of a Presbyterian minister, said he prayed hard for a game like this one.

UCLA’s coach knows full well that his other methods -- staging extra-punishing practices, relenting on using a zone defense, and publicly expressing at times his embarrassment of the team -- hadn’t worked as well in immediately getting his scuffling team to play up to its potential.

But the Bruins finally got a big win and did it in style, with former walk-on guard Mustafa Abdul-Hamid nailing a jumper at the buzzer to beat defending Pac-10 champion Washington 62-61 on Thursday.

The Den student section mobbed Abdul-Hamid, and Howland hugged and kissed his wife and daughter before walking out of Pauley Pavilion thumbing celebratory tweets into the night. He might have said a few more words before going to bed.

“I have a strong conviction as a Christian, and I’ve been praying a lot for our team and our players as has my wife and my family and her Bible study group and everybody in our church,” Howland said. “It’s all about having faith.”

There are those in Westwood who continue to have an unconditional belief in Howland’s program, but that’s been tested by a team off to an 8-10 start that will likely need a conference tournament title to get to the Big Dance.

For a brief moment, however, magic was made on Nell & John Wooden Court after Washington’s Venoy Overton drove the length of the court for a layup with 3.2 seconds left that put the Huskies up by a point.

A junior guard who wasn’t on scholarship until last year, Abdul-Hamid fired back with a dagger from the left wing. Can one shot change a season?

“I don’t think so,” Abdul-Hamid said. “That shot was a great finish, but that shot was from shooting at practice, from a week of preparation, from freshmen stepping up, from senior leadership.

“We played hard today, and we haven’t always done that.”

UCLA committed 23 turnovers in a loss at Stanford earlier this month, and Howland said the following week that in practice, he counted up the turnovers at the end of practice and had players run based on the total.

The Bruins came out against USC in their next game and lost by 21, their worst showing against their crosstown rival since 1945.

After that one, Howland said he felt embarrassed for the program and essentially apologized to the former UCLA basketball greats who built a program that has 11 national championships.

But for now, the future isn’t worried.

Tyler Lamb, another highly recruited guard who has signed a national letter of intent with UCLA, will enroll in summer school so he can get started early. He loves that Howland preaches defense and has a history of sending players to the NBA.

UCLA starts two freshmen, and Lamb said he’ll have an opportunity for immediate playing time as well. From his talks with current players, he’s actually encouraged.

“They’re not happy with the way things are going, but they believe in the coaches and are following the system,” Lamb said. “Things will turn around.”