INDIANAPOLIS — The UCLA Bruins — you may remember them — advanced to their first NCAA title game since 1995 with a 59-45 win over Louisiana State on Saturday at the RCA Dome that all but stripped the stripes off the Tigers.
They did it using the usual defensive body parts — head and shoulders, knees and toes — and a bench that's deeper than a gorge.
"Those guys have seven players," reserve point guard Darren Collison said afterward of LSU. "We have 10 players. They were tired down the stretch. That was the difference."
All those UCLA injuries early this season — every scholarship player has been injured; seven players missed a total of 87 games — forced Coach Ben Howland to play men before their time, never thinking it might lead to UCLA's 12th national championship.
You know things are going off-the-charts right for UCLA when Bruins Janou Rubin and Michael Roll are on the court at the same time, playing meaningful minutes, in the first half of a national semifinal game.
Howland, though, was in a pinch.
UCLA was playing the Tigers off their claws early on, but piling up fouls in the process. By the end of the first half, in fact, four-fifths of the Bruin starting lineup was on the bench with two fouls.
Center Ryan Hollins picked up his second with 10:58 left; guard Arron Afflalo picked up his second at the 8:28 mark; and guard Jordan Farmar sat down with 4:17 left.
When Cedric Bozeman picked up his second, with 3:01 remaining in the half, Howland turned to Rubin, a senior who had played only 59 minutes all year.
"I was shocked a bit," Rubin said later. "I haven't played since Belmont."
Howland has so much confidence in his bench he risked leaving in his substitutes rather than risk a third foul, before the half, to one of his starters.
"He tells us all the time that he believes in all of us," Rubin said.
Playing the reserves with so much on the line was a gamble.
UCLA had a 31-17 lead when Farmar joined Hollins and Afflalo on the bench. If LSU was going to get back in the game, this seemed to be the time.
The Bruins, though, didn't give an inch, outscoring LSU, 8-7, until the end of the half.
"It was a key," reserve guard Roll said. "We couldn't afford any more fouls. If they make a run right there it's a totally different game."
Rubin played only five minutes in the game and missed his only shot attempt, but he played his part.
"Solid," he said in describing his performance. "I thought I held up solid."
Roll played 10 minutes in the first half and was part of a relief corps that handed a 39-24 halftime lead back to the starting unit.
Ready and rested, the starters blew the game open in the early minutes of the second half, extending the lead to 24 when Roll, back in the game, made a three-pointer with 10:16 left.
Howland, early in the year, could have never imagined the blessing-in-disguise aspect of all those Bruin injuries.
By now, most Bruin fans can recite the injury report by memory. Sophomore Josh Shipp was lost for the season with a hip injury; reserve center Lorenzo Mata sat out 16 games because of assorted ailments (concussion, broken leg, nose broken twice). Other Bruins who missed significant time included center Michael Fey (16 games), Bozeman (eight), forward Alfred Aboya (six), Hollins (six), Farmar (two). The list goes on and on.
With the injuries, Howland had no choice but to extend playing time to several Bruins.
"What's really been helpful for our team is the adversity we experienced early in the year really opened up a lot of opportunities for all the players on the team to step up," Howland said. "I have total confidence in all the kids that we're playing. It really makes a huge difference."
It's making a huge difference — all the way to Monday's national title game, against Florida.
Saturday, super-sub point guard Darren Collison provided six points and two assists in 21 minutes. Mata, who played wrapped in adhesive tape and a face mask, made one basket and grabbed eight rebounds in 17 minutes.
Thirteen players ended up logging time in Saturday's win and the Bruins ended up needing almost all of them.
It has been this way all year, and it probably won't change Monday.
The contribution isn't going unnoticed by the UCLA starters.
"It's been very important," Bozeman said. "In the tournament you need a bench. It's definitely helped us."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun