Darren Collison had no doubt Eric Maynor would take the last shot. All he had to do was make sure it didn’t go in.
Collison refused to yield in the final seconds, pressuring Maynor into missing a 17-footer at the buzzer to give UCLA a 65-64 victory over VCU on Thursday night in the opening round of the East Regional.
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The Bruins (26-8) kept alive their hopes of a fourth straight trip to the Final Four, advancing to play Villanova (27-7) on Saturday.
“Everybody knew he was going to take that last shot,” Collison said. “I mean, it’s his team. There’s a lot of pressure on him to get the job done. There’s a lot of pressure on myself to get a stop. When he tried to get me up in the air, I just had a good contest.”
Josh Shipp scored 16, Jrue Holiday had 13 and three others scored in double figures for the sixth-seeded Bruins.
Maynor led VCU with 21 points. The Rams (24-10) from the Colonial Athletic Association were a popular pick to pull off a 6-11 upset against the Pac-10 powerhouse—even President Barack Obama circled VCU in his bracket.
But UCLA wasn’t ready to go home.
Trailing 63-60 with 1:19 left, VCU pulled within a point on a pair of free throws by Bradford Burgess. Alfred Aboya answered with two free throws for the Bruins. Then Maynor hit a pair for the Rams.
Larry Sanders blocked Collison’s shot at the opposite end, giving VCU the ball and a chance to win with 11.6 second left.
But Collison made up for it on the defensive end.
Maynor, whose last-second, 15-foot jumper knocked out Duke in the first round two seasons ago, got the ball and was closely guarded by Collison. Maynor couldn’t get a clean look and his shot grazed the front of the rim as time ran out.
“They knocked me off track a little bit,” said Maynor, who averages 22 point per game. “I rushed it. I knew I had to get a shot up at the basket. They did a good job on me. I came up short. Every time I shoot the ball, I think it’s going in. Always.”
Collison struggled offensively, scoring 10 points on 3-for-10 shooting. But he did his part keeping Maynor in check. Maynor had just six points in the first half and did most of his scoring with Collison on the bench because of foul trouble.
“His defense was spectacular in the first half,” UCLA Ben Howland said of Collison. “When he got in foul trouble, Maynor really got going.”
The Bruins weren’t thrilled about making a cross country flight to start off the NCAA tournament, but they had a small, vocal contingent of fans along for the ride. They’ll need those die-hards even more on Saturday because the Wachovia Center is Villanova’s off-campus home.
If history meant anything, this looked like a mismatch. UCLA leads the country with 11 national titles and 18 Final Four appearances, including the last three years. VCU came in with five tourney wins in only eight trips, and has never made it past the second round.
It was far more even on the court.
Down 10 to start the second half, VCU trimmed that deficit to 39-34 on Maynor’s driving layup. A pair of free throws by Maynor cut it to 47-43 midway through. Then Holiday took over after Collison went to the bench following his fourth foul with 9:26 left.
The freshman guard hit an 18-footer, made two free throws and sank a runner in the lane to extend UCLA’s lead to 55-44. A minute later, a thunderous dunk by Aboya electrified the fans.
Still, VCU wouldn’t go quietly. Maynor and Joey Rodriguez hit consecutive 3-pointers to get VCU within 61-58 with 3:15 left. Collison answered with a driving layup. After Sanders blocked Collison’s shot, T.J. Gwynn’s basket made it 63-60.
“It’s tough right now because our kids fought back and played so hard,” Rams coach Anthony Grant said. “I wish UCLA all the luck. That’s a classy program over there.”
The teams went back-and-forth the first 15 minutes. With Villanova coach Jay Wright scouting from a second-row seat near half court in the press area, UCLA pulled away with a 13-0 run.
Shipp had seven points during the spurt and Collison finished it off with a 3-pointer to put the Bruins ahead 35-23. A layup by Kirill Pishchalnikov ended VCU’s long scoreless drought. The Rams went 4:19 without a point and 5:36 between baskets.
Snubbed by the selection committee last year, VCU made sure it secured a trip to the tournament by winning the CAA tournament.
The Rams weren’t intimidated by UCLA’s storied tradition. After all, their upset of Duke came from the same No. 11 seed in 2007.
“They never quit. They kept fighting. They’re a scrappy team,” Shipp said.
VCU fans outnumbered the Bruins faithful, who had a much longer trip from the West Coast. When a section of fans decked in true blue started chanting “UC-LA” right before tip-off, a much louder group of Rams fans drowned them out with “VCU” cheers.
Well, UCLA was a long way from home.