The night started with 10-year-old Madison Baez belting out a stirring rendition of the national anthem. It ended with Randy Newman crooning “I Love L.A.” In between, No. 2 UCLA and No. 4 Villanova hit all the right notes. Pauley Pavilion was jumping from the jump, and by the time UCLA wrapped up a heart-stopping 86-77 overtime win, Bruins fans were ready to party like it’s 1995. (And 1964, ’65, ’67, ’68, ’69 …)
This is what college basketball is supposed to sound like. The cacophony that erupted inside this hallowed arena burst from several months of anticipation and frustration that got intensely pent up during a 2020-21 season that was all too quiet. Throughout the day Friday, a couple thousand UCLA students waited in line outside the Pavilion for the privilege of bearing witness. (Although it was 80 degrees and sunny, so there’s no need for violins.) They were rewarded for their fortitude, as were the brave souls on the East Coast who stayed up until the game concluded after 1:30 a.m. Philadelphia time. “I told Jay (Wright), let’s play again tomorrow night,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
UCLA’s performance may have felt like a throwback, but really it was an extension of eight months ago, when this same group played three overtime games while advancing from the First Four through the Final Four. (The Bruins also beat Michigan in the Elite Eight by two points.) Hearts pounded and lungs gasped throughout Pauley as UCLA clawed back from a 10-point second-half deficit, but the Bruins themselves were very much in their element. “We live for the big moments,” 6-7 junior forward Jaime Jaquez said. “We’re very comfortable in these situations.”
So it is that here, in the shadow of Hollywood, UCLA is set to write a different kind of script this season. Having returned every player from that Final Four squad, and then added a prized freshman and transfer, they won’t be sneaking up on anyone — least of all Villanova, a program that is led by two super seniors and has won two NCAA titles in the last six years. Both teams struggled to score for much of the first half, and when the game was 12 minutes in, UCLA led just 21-14. Behind its old-man trio of 6-7 super senior forward Jermaine Samuels (20 points), 6-3 super senior guard Collin Gillespie (18) and 6-4 junior Justin Moore (14), Villanova opened up that 10-point lead with 9:24 to play.