In fact, the only freshman able to identify the year that UCLA last won a title was Kris Johnson, who must be considered a ringer in this competition. Kris's father, Marques, was a starting forward on the 1975 team. "This is a whole new era," says Kris, "and now we're young Bruins craving a championship."
While Kris has been slowed by injuries most of the season, Henderson and Bailey have been indispensable contributors. Henderson was drilled on the playground by his father, Milton Sr., who in the mid-1970s played in the same backcourt with Maurice Cheeks at West Texas State. Milton Jr. (a.k.a. J.R.) was an impressive scorer as a senior at East Bakersfield (Calif.) High, but his detached demeanor made coaches question his attitude, and he was not selected for the McDonald's All-Star game last spring, a particularly galling slight since he was working at the Golden Arches at the time.
Henderson's apparent disinterest masks a quiet intensity. Before his first start, at Oregon State in January, it appeared as if he might be slipping into a coma. Says Harrick, "I looked out there at J.R., and I said, 'Is he going to be awake for the tip?' "
Henderson has started every game since for the Bruins and at week's end was averaging 9.1 points and 4.2 rebounds a game. The versatile 6'9" freshman has split time between center, forward and guard, and is sometimes asked to bring the ball up the floor and run the offense in order to take some of the load off Edney, the usual point guard, whose knees are ailing. Bailey has worked exclusively off the bench but increasingly has found himself on the court in the final minutes. Described by Harrick as "a starter who doesn't start," Bailey acts as the Bruins' human jumper cable.
Against Arizona on Sunday, Bailey entered at the 13:00 mark of the first half and scored seven points in his first two minutes of action—on two free throws, a three-pointer and a follow-up rebound basket. Meanwhile, O'Bannon was hitting a couple of three-pointers of his own in the opening half, a godsend to a team that averages only four such field goals a game, by far the fewest in the Pac-10.
The Bruins and the Wildcats traded punches most of the way until Bailey caught fire again in the second half, scoring eight straight UCLA points to give the Bruins a 60-55 lead with 8:28 to go. O'Bannon's last free throw proved to be the final point of the game and also gave him a career high, mercifully expunging from the record books his 30-point performance in last year's Tulsa nightmare. "It was just too much Ed O'Bannon out there," Harrick said afterward. "They have yet to invent a defense that could stop him today."
Obscured by O'Bannon's heroics was a key strategic move made by Harrick, who had noticed on the film of UCLA's first game against Arizona this year that Bailey had guarded Stoudamire for six minutes and hadn't allowed him to launch a single shot. So Bailey and his six-inch height advantage shadowed the 5'11" Stoudamire throughout the final half on Sunday. "In that first game I actually said to myself, Wow, I'm guarding Damon Stoudamire, one of my idols; I hope he doesn't make me look like a fool," Bailey recalls. "But this time I wasn't a baby freshman anymore. I've matured a lot since then. I don't have any more idols."
While holding Stoudamire to only three second-half baskets, Bailey also scored 19 points, including a rousing dunk—preceded by an astonishing behind-the-back move—that all but sealed the win with :20 left. "Bailey played real, real big, especially on defense," said Harrick.
So, with Championship Weekend successfully concluded, the Bruins now must guard against the kind of letdown that has haunted them in the past. There was a significant dearth of trash talk in the UCLA locker room after the game, and the optimism was notably cautious. "The Pac-10 title is ours to lose," said sophomore forward Charles O'Bannon, Ed's little brother, before quickly catching himself. "Strike that. I should say it's ours to win."
The Bruins even created converts from among their harshest critics. "Come tournament time, everybody's going to be riding them, calling them chokers, saying Harrick can't coach," Arizona's trash-talking guard Reggie Geary said after Sunday's game. "But I believe that team can bear down and take care of business. They proved to me they're a team to be reckoned with."