SEATTLE -- The ghosts are gone. The decades of frustration in Westwood are over. After a 20-year interruption, the tradition has continued.
UCLA is back.
Back where it was in the days of Alcindor and Warren and Allen, of Patterson and Wicks and Rowe, of Walton and Wilkes. And of Wooden. Always Wooden.
Back on top of the college basketball world.
With last night's stunning and decisive 89-78 victory over defending national champion Arkansas in the NCAA championship game at the Kingdome, the top-ranked Bruins reclaimed the spot that was once nearly their private domain.
Despite the absence of point guard Tyus Edney, who sat out all but the first 2 1/2 minutes with a badly sprained right wrist, UCLA managed to do the unexpected. First the running Bruins broke the Razorbacks' vaunted press. Then they broke their hearts.
With senior All-American Ed O'Bannon scoring a game-high 30 points and pulling down a game-high 17 rebounds, and with freshman guard Toby Bailey tying his career high with 26 points, UCLA dominated Arkansas down the stretch.
Conversely, Razorbacks stars Corliss Williamson and Scotty Thurman virtually disappeared. Williamson, the MVP of last year's Final Four, finished with 12 points and four rebounds, missing 13 of 16 shots. Thurman, who hit the key three-point shot to beat Duke last year, finished with five on 2-for-9 shooting, including 1-for-7 on threes.
The victory was played out before a roaring crowd of 38,540 that included 84-year-old John Wooden, making his first appearance
at a Final Four since 1984. It was the 19th straight win for UCLA (31-2) and the biggest of Jim Harrick's career, giving the often-beleaguered coach more than his share of redemption after seven years in Westwood.
"This is the greatest feeling," Harrick said after UCLA stretched its record to 11 national championships. "This is what you dream about when you step on the court, no matter if you're coaching or playing."
The defeat was the first in two years of NCAA tournament play for Arkansas (32-7) and only the second in the past 17 games for the Razorbacks. It prevented Nolan Richardson from joining a select group of coaches who have won back-to-back national titles.
"Our team looked like we were in mud most of the night," said Richardson, who took a call from his team's most famous fan, President Clinton, after the game. "It reminded me of the first game [of the season] against UMass. I thought we were a little tired, but you've got to give UCLA all the credit. Tonight, UCLA was the best basketball team, there's no question about it."
After the Bruins broke open a close game early in the second half to lead by 12 with a little more than 11 minutes left, and by nine with just under eight minutes to go, Arkansas seemed to be on the verge of one of its patented comebacks.
But it proved short-lived, as the Razorbacks could only cut their deficit to 67-64 before O'Bannon ended a drought for the Bruins and, along with Bailey, led them on a game-breaking run. A jump hook by O'Bannon started a 10-1 run from which Arkansas never recovered.
"When we're behind, we're always full of confidence," said Williamson, who was continually thwarted by UCLA's collapsing defense that provided help for 7-foot, 250-pound center George Zidek. "No matter how far we're behind, we always seem to make that run. But we didn't make that run."
Instead, the Bruins continued to beat the Razorbacks upcourt for layups and dunks, the last of which by O'Bannon with 35 seconds remaining set off a wild celebration in the stands. When the final buzzer sounded, O'Bannon punched the air with both fists and fell to the court, burying his face in his hands.
"The whole year, no one believed in us but us," said O'Bannon, who was named the Final Four's MVP to cap a remarkable career that nearly ended with a serious knee injury before his freshman year. "Even last night, everyone was saying that we didn't have a chance. When Tyus went down, you could feel the doubters everywhere."
There were even some doubts on the UCLA bench. Harrick said that he knew Edney was not going to be a factor when the player many consider his team's MVP during the NCAA tournament could barely put any pressure on the wrist trying to dribble and catch a ball. It left Harrick drained of emotion coming out.
"I lost my heart," Harrick would recall long after the game, his shirt and suit stained by the shower of Coca-Cola his players had sprayed in celebration. "My assistants tried to pump me up, but I said, 'This is reality. We're playing for the national championship against Arkansas without our general.' I said to them, 'You've got to get the ball to Ed.' "
From the start, the Bruins rode O'Bannon, who attacked the Razorbacks inside. Then they rode Bailey, the high-flying freshman with the 41-inch vertical leap. They overcame an early seven-point deficit to lead by as many as eight in the first half.
"We stayed positive the whole time," said O'Bannon. "We stayed together. We've been doing that all year. Tyus was behind us. He brought us here. My MVP goes to Tyus."
Said sophomore point guard Cameron Dollar, who played in Edney's absence: "Every time they made a run, we kept the fire in our eyes and kept attacking."
The presence of Wooden did not distract the Bruins, and might have motivated them. Harrick said he learned after the game that the legendary "Wizard of Westwood" had planned to attend all along, but did not tell anyone until Sunday.
"He's way ahead," said Harrick.
Just nine titles. After two decades of frustration, after all the talk of ghosts, it didn't seem so significant anymore. The tradition has continued. UCLA is back on top of the college basketball world.