OAKLAND, Calif. -- Everyone who doesn't play for the UCLA Bruins thinks All-America forward Ed O'Bannon is the team's most important player. But everyone who plays for the Bruins, including O'Bannon, points to someone else: the little bumblebee point guard, the one the Bruins call Junior.
"Everything we're about, the running game and speed and pressure defense, starts with Tyus Edney," O'Bannon said yesterday. "There's no question he is our most valuable guy."
That has been particularly true since the NCAA tournament began. Every time the Bruins have come close to crumpling under the burden of John Wooden's legacy, as they have so often before, Edney has bailed them out.
He drove the length of the court and beat the buzzer with the winning basket against Missouri in the second round, preventing an upset that would have caused thunderclaps in the Bruins' win-or-else constituency. And with the Bruins attempting to make the Final Four for the first time in 15 years yesterday at the Oakland Coliseum, Edney wore out the Connecticut Huskies in the West Regional final.
At least Bruins coach Jim Harrick, who never goes longer than two minutes without telling you how much pressure he is under, had the grace to give Edney the credit after the Bruins' 102-96 win -- their 17th win in a row.
"Junior dominated," Harrick said. "He controlled the flow. He had an answer for every run they made at us. He led our break. He played defense. He made plays. He was just a giant out there."
The Huskies are among the nation's quickest teams, as Maryland learned Thursday night, but Edney was still too quick for them yesterday.
A slender, 5-foot-10 senior, he is the closest thing to Muggsy Bogues since the original, a dipping, darting menace, always pushing the ball upcourt in a hurry, always jumping into the middle of what the other team is trying to do. A zesty pest.
When a reporter asked him yesterday how long he needed to dribble the length of the court and get off a good shot, he said, "Oh, three seconds." He was being serious.
"But it's not just his speed," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "[Kansas guard] Jacque Vaughn is just as quick. [Georgetown's] Allen Iverson is a little faster. But they don't have his ability to create plays, to break down your defense."
Edney broke down the Huskies' defense -- and resolve -- again and again yesterday.
With the Bruins up by four points after a UConn three-pointer with 3.6 seconds left in the first half, UCLA surprised everyone by calling a timeout. Edney took the ball upcourt, came off a screen and sank a 30-footer at the buzzer. Three seconds, indeed.
"I kind of hoped that shot would break their backs," he said. "I know it hurt them."
When the Huskies cut the lead to three points with 16 minutes left, Edney hit a three-pointer from above the key and fed a teammate for a layup on a fast break. The lead was back to 12 within 90 seconds.
"If you have to keep climbing hills, they become a mountain after a while," Calhoun said.
With a minute left and the lead hanging at eight points, Edney made six straight free throws to quash any lingering doubts about the outcome. His final line was 22 points and 10 assists in 40 minutes. He was voted the regional's Most Outstanding Player.
"Best game of my career," Edney said. "This is like a dream, to have a run like this in my last year in the tournament."
Actually, Edney has been on "a run" for most of his college career. Harrick hesitated to recruit him out of Long Beach Poly High School -- "he was so little he looked like a peanut" -- but Edney was interested only in UCLA, which Harrick liked hearing. The Pac-10 coaches have voted Edney first-team all-conference for three straight years.
"I've been telling people for three years that he is one of the premier guards in the country," Harrick said. "He's just been overshadowed by O'Bannon and [Arizona guard] Damon Stoudamire. It's nice that people are finally getting to see what he can do."
Connecticut certainly did yesterday. "We couldn't contain him," guard Ray Allen said. "He penetrated, got to the baseline and made plays the whole game. He's real, real quick."
The Bruins are a formidable team with numerous dangerous components, including the Flying O'Bannon Brothers, hotshot freshmen Toby Bailey and J. R. Henderson, a solid center in George Zidek and a productive bench led by Cameron Dollar.
"They're a complete team capable of winning the national championship," Calhoun said.
The national championship would be the Bruins' first in two decades, since Wooden's last year. Who would have guessed that, after all this time, what they needed was a "peanut" point guard to push them into contention?
"Ed has carried us all year," forward Charles O'Bannon said amid the Bruins' loud locker-room celebration, "but now Tyus is the man, too."