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March 1, 2009
BERKELEY, Calif.(AP) When UCLA's goal of a fourth consecutive outright Pac-10 title became unreachable a few hours before the Bruins took the Haas Pavilion court, Darren Collison reminded his teammates it wasn't exactly at the top of their to-do list, anyway.
Collison scored 16 of his 22 points in the second half on a variety of daring drives to the basket Saturday night, and No. 22 UCLA took sole possession of second place in the Pac-10 with a 72-68 victory over California.
No. 21 Washington's win over Arizona earlier in the day guaranteed the Huskies at least a share of the Pac-10 title that's belonged to UCLA since Collison was a freshman out of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
But after Stanford held Collison to seven points two nights earlier, the senior responded with one of his best games. He had six assists, hit two 3-pointers and even scored seven points during UCLA's decisive 13-0 run late in the second half.
"We wanted to do something special, to make history, but it's hard to do those things," Collison said. "We understand what's No. 1, and that's the NCAA tournament. We want to win this whole thing outright. Really, nobody remembers who won the conference championship."
Nikola Dragovic, Josh Shipp and Alfred Aboya scored 12 points apiece for the Bruins (22-7, 11-5), who stayed in contention for a share of that title by sweeping their weekend games in the Bay Area. Aboya added nine rebounds for the Bruins, and Dragovic grabbed seven despite battling through a flu bug that had him consuming only ginger ale, toast and applesauce on Friday.
To share the regular-season title, UCLA must beat Oregon and Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion next weekend while hoping Washington State knocks off the Huskies. The Bruins are more interested in replicating the Final Four trips that followed each of the last three conference crowns.
"It'd take something big for us to get a share of the title," Shipp conceded. "For us, it's about getting momentum now and going into the tournament with as high a seed as we can."
The Bruins have won seven of 10 games down the stretch, but just three of their last six while dropping out of first place. UCLA has beaten Cal in nine of the schools' last 10 meetings.
Jerome Randle scored 20 points and Patrick Christopher had 16 in the final home game of the season for Cal (21-8, 10-6), which had won five of six to make an unlikely Pac-10 title challenge in coach Mike Montgomery's debut season. The Golden Bears' sellout crowd reached deafening levels for a rare national television appearance, but Collison and the postseason-tested Bruins didn't rattle.
"It's a tough environment here," Collison said. "This has been the toughest environment since Texas (on Dec. 4), but we really gutted it up and won the game. That's a good Cal team. Everybody is going to find out when they make a run in the NCAA tournament, I believe."
Theo Robertson scored 14 points for the Bears, who finished 16-2 at home - but have lost five straight at Haas to the Bruins.
Cal led 53-49 with 9 1/2 minutes to play before Dragovic's 3-pointer kicked off 13 consecutive points for the Bruins. Collison contributed three layups in the run, pounding his chest and staring down the Cal student section after getting fouled on the third basket.
UCLA led 64-55 with 5 minutes left, but Cal trimmed the deficit to five points before Collison made a difficult quasi-jump hook from near the free throw line to beat the shot clock with 1:28 to play. Collison added another tough layup in traffic with 26.7 seconds left after Cal got within four points, and the Bears got no closer than 71-68 on Randle's 3-pointer moments later.
"That's why (Collison) is what he is," Montgomery said. "The ability to make a play in late clock is probably what separates UCLA from a lot of people. Collison is such a clutch player, and he makes plays in critical situations. In late clock, he's as good as there is."
UCLA scored seven points on one possession late in the first half when Dragovic was fouled intentionally by Robertson while making a layup. Dragovic hit both free throws and Michael Roll added a 3-pointer 21 seconds later, turning a five-point UCLA deficit into a two-point lead.
"The reality is that we should have been up a bunch in the first half," Montgomery said. "When they get what turns out to be a seven-point play, it just really takes the wind out of your sails. I'm not saying it was the wrong call. It's just hard to take."
Cal forward Jordan Wilkes, the son of famed UCLA star Jamaal Wilkes, was the only senior honored before the Bears' final home game. Jamaal Wilkes, who was born in Berkeley, accompanied his son on the court for the honor, waving to the Cal fans.
Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight got a rousing rendition of the Cal student section's "Take off that red shirt!" chant - employed to show its disdain for anything remotely related to archrival Stanford - when he showed up at the midcourt broadcast table wearing a bright-red sweater. He turned to the students and regretfully pulled up the sweater to reveal another red shirt underneath.