OAKLAND, Calif. -- The poster has been in the UCLA locker room at Pauley Pavilion for nearly a year, showing a picture of a rainbow hanging over the Kingdome in Seattle.
It has been the personal compass for the top-ranked Bruins and their beleaguered coach, Jim Harrick, pointing them in the direction of their goal and their destination: the Final Four.
Weather permitting, that poster will come to life for UCLA later this week. By outrunning and outgunning Connecticut yesterday the West Regional final at the Oakland Coliseum, 102-96, the Bruins are headed back to what once was their semiprivate domain.
It will be an NCAA-record 15th Final Four appearance for UCLA (29-2), but, more importantly, the school's first trip in 15 years and Harrick's first after seven highly successful, yet mostly frustrating, seasons in Westwood.
"I feel badly for Jim Calhoun because his career has paralleled mine," Harrick said of the Huskies coach, who lost in a regional final for the second time in as many tries. "For me personally, it's certainly the pinnacle for everything I've done in my life."
Harrick paused, thinking of all the criticism he has endured during his UCLA tenure, which has produced a higher winning percentage over a similar period than the Wizard himself, John Wooden.
All Harrick has been reminded of was the way his teams blew through the regular season, only to get blown out in March. Of the 27-point loss to Indiana three years ago, his team's only other Final Eight appearance. Of last year's first-round defeat to Tulsa, one of four postseason cameos the Bruins have made under Harrick.
"Have you ever been to the Final Four and seen how big that thing is," he said, barely cracking a smile. "It's certainly nice for our program. I've been asked, 'Why haven't you been to the Final Four?' I'll tell you, because it's hard."
"You'll never understand."
But in the course of 40 frantic minutes yesterday, it all changed. His own personal ghosts were buried, and those that have haunted this once majestic, if flawed, program since the last of its 10 national championships two decades ago, slowly slinked away.
It changed because Tyus Edney, UCLA's little point guard, became, in Harrick's words, "a giant on the court" in a marvelous 22-point, 10-assist performance that won the 5-foot-10, 152-pound senior the regional's Most Outstanding Player award.
It changed because the Bruins overcame a 5-for-13 shooting, 15-point, six-rebound afternoon by senior All-American and national Player of the Year candidate Ed O'Bannon with the foretelling play of freshmen and future stars Toby Bailey and J. R. Henderson. Bailey, a 6-5 guard, scored a career-high 26 points and pulled down nine rebounds, and Henderson came off the bench to score 18.
And it changed because UCLA, the top seed in the West, was able to do to eighth-ranked, second-seeded Connecticut (28-5) what the Huskies did to Maryland in the regional semifinal Thursday night.
Except for sophomore forward Ray Allen, who kept the score respectable by firing in a career-high 36 points on 12-for-25 shooting, the Bruins slowed down Connecticut's vaunted running game and beat the Huskies downcourt for countless layups and dunks.
Senior forward Donny Marshall, who burned the Terps for 27 points, was never a factor, finishing with a quiet 15 on 3-for-11 shooting.
"I don't think they were quicker than we were," said Calhoun, who was clearly in the minority on that opinion. "But they finished better than we did."
What might have finished the Huskies was a play Edney made right before halftime. After a three-point shot by Allen cut UCLA's seven-point lead to 45-41 with five seconds to play, Bruins forward Charles O'Bannon called a timeout with 3.6 seconds left.
Edney, whose 4.7-second, length-of-the-court ---and-drive against Missouri in the second round gave UCLA a shaky one-point victory, pushed the ball past midcourt and fired from about 30 feet away. It sailed in as the buzzer sounded, giving the Bruins a 48-41 lead and, more significantly, the momentum going into their locker room.
"I was a bit upset at Charles O'Bannon for using one of our timeouts like that," Harrick said jokingly. "But then [after Edney's basket], I said, 'Great call, Charles.' I think it was like sticking a pin in a balloon and deflating it."
Said Charles O'Bannon: "I thought we had time to score another basket. Had the half ended with Ray Allen's three-pointer, they would have had the momentum. But the way it ended, we had it instead. Tyus made me look a lot better."
The Bruins opened the second half with possession, and center George Zidek's layup gave UCLA a nine-point lead. Similar to what Maryland did against them, the Huskies made a couple of runs but never got closer than three points early in the second half, 56-53 with 16:07 to play.
"We were down four [late in the first half] and then we were down nine in about eight seconds," said Calhoun. "There were still 20 minutes left, but it did make the hill higher to climb."
The Huskies never quite made it to the top of the hill. A three-pointer by Edney, a steal-and-dunk by Bailey and a drive by Henderson off Ed O'Bannon's block on Connecticut guard Kevin Ollie started an 8-2 run that pushed the Bruins ahead 67-55.
The Huskies pulled to 69-65 with 12:10 to go on a three-point shot by Allen, who was fouled but missed the free throw. That was as close as Connecticut got, as UCLA, sparked by Bailey and Henderson, built its lead to as many as 14 on five separate occasions.
"I thought Bailey was very aggressive all day long and J. R. came in and really solidified us," said Harrick, who didn't make a substitution the last 13 1/2 minutes. "On a night when Ed #i O'Bannon wasn't the dominant player on the floor, our freshmen stepped up and did what they've been doing all year long.
"Make no mistake, the little general [Edney] was the guy who directed everything today. But they [freshmen] were brilliant, and they've been a big part of the reason where we are we are right now."
And where they are going later this week. It might be raining when the Bruins hit Seattle for Friday's workout and Saturday's national semifinal against the winner of today's East Regional final between Massachusetts and Oklahoma State, but they will see that rainbow. It will be up there, hanging over the Kingdome, chasing all those ghosts away.
2. North Carolina 74
1. Kentucky 61
1. UCLA 102
2. Connecticut 96
4. Oklahoma State vs.
2. Massachusetts, 2:40, chs. 13, 9
4. Virginia vs.
2. Arkansas, 5 p.m., chs. 13, 9
UCLA vs. East
North Carolina vs. Midwest
First game at 5:42, Saturday
Semifinal winners, 8:40, April 3