- Peter Yoon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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With his Bruins beginning to show signs of wilting down the stretch against the Arizona Wildcats on Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion, Muhammad came to the rescue like a superhero swooping in to save the day.
He scored 13 of his game-high 18 points in the second half and eight of UCLA’s final 15 points, including the final five. With nine seconds left and UCLA’s once 14-point lead down to three, he went strong to the glass and grabbed a rebound with all of his muscle after Arizona’s Mark Lyons missed a shot.
He then drained a pair of free throws to seal the victory in what Bruins coach Ben Howland said was Muhammad’s last game at Pauley Pavilion. If it was, what a performance he put on.
“I think the thing that makes him who he is is how competitive he is,” Howland said. “That’s what makes the great ones great. They want to do everything they can to make their team win.”
Muhammad did plenty of those things Saturday night, rising to the occasion of the bright lights of a nationally televised game. And in a heated contest between the Pac-12’s most storied teams, Muhammad wrote a page for himself.
He made a basket and a free throw to put UCLA up 52-38 with 15:25 to play before Arizona began to make a run. Four Arizona 3-point baskets over the next 4½ minutes trimmed UCLA’s lead to 59-53, and a free throw with 9:04 left to play made it 59-54. Then, Muhammad started coming up with big plays.
He smoothly stroked a 3-pointer to put UCLA back up by eight. Arizona made another run, cutting UCLA’s lead to 70-66 on a 3-pointer by Grant Jerrett. Muhammad immediately streaked down the floor for a layup that put UCLA up, 72-66.
Another Jerrett 3-pointer cut the lead to a one possession game with 1:07 to play, and after forcing a UCLA shot-clock violation, the Wildcats came down the floor looking to pull off a miracle. Mark Lyons drove to the basket and put up a floater, but it clanked off the rim. Muhammad rose with a primal scream and muscled the ball into his possession to clinch a victory the UCLA.
“I just want to win so bad. I just tried to grab the rebound,” Muhammad said. “I didn’t care who was right there and just tried to grab it and hold it tight.”
It was a nice exclamation point on a season that started low for Muhammad and hit some bumps along the way but slowly and steadily got better and better. Muhammad came to UCLA as a heavily hyped freshman but began the season on the bench as the NCAA investigated his eligibility.
When he finally started on the hardwood, he was out of shape and appeared to be an overrated bust. But as he improved, so did the Bruins. They rattled off 10 consecutive victories, including one over Missouri during which Muhammad enjoyed a coming out party with 27 points.
He has led the team in scoring since December and blossomed into one of the nation’s premier freshmen. When critics said he couldn’t play defense, he got better defensively. When they pointed out his inability to rebound, he focused on getting better on the glass.
A player that looked far from the NBA-ready prospect that he was touted to be started looking like exactly that.
“He definitely lived up to the expectations,” sophomore guard Norman Powell said. “I hope he comes back, but if he doesn’t, I wish him the best going on to the next level. He’s been one of the best players as a freshman, and he’s definitely lived up to the hype.”
Muhammad has the innate ability to perform at his best when the stakes are highest. He’s best late in the game, always wants to take the important shots and doesn’t shy away from pressure. He seems to thrive under pressure.
“You can see how special he’s going to be for a long time to come,” Howland said. “He has ice water in his veins. He wants to take the shot.”
The coach will need more of the same from Muhammad under the glare of March. The Bruins have a road trip to Washington State and Washington next week; should they win both, they will secure their first conference title since 2008.
Then, there is the Pac-12 tournament and, of course, the NCAA tournament. Muhammad, after battling the flu, pink eye and a sprained ankle during the past few weeks appears to be rounding back into peak form just in time for some high-stakes situations and has the Bruins peaking at the right time.
He’s averaging 18.8 points and shooting 50 percent from the field over the past four games and has led the Bruins to victories in six of their past seven games, including four in a row. It’s the longest win streak for the Bruins since that 10-game streak in December and January.
Unfortunately for UCLA fans, Muhammad probably has run the historic floor of Pauley Pavilion for the last time.
“I know that. He knows that. We all know that,” Howland said.
But there are still some very important games left for Muhammad in a Bruins’ uniform and plenty of time for him to cement his UCLA legacy if he can carry the Bruins through a tournament run the way Kevin Love did in his one year in Westwood.
“We want the season to go on as long as possible for him,” Howland said.
And the longer it goes, the more chances there will be for Muhammad to rise up in big moments.
It’s just a shame for UCLA fans that there won’t be any more of them in Pauley Pavilion.