Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, March 15, 2013 | 2 a.m.
"Rise to the Occasion." That’s the phrase screened onto UCLA’s warm-up shirts, and it may as well have been a premonition for Shabazz Muhammad’s return to Las Vegas.
The Bishop Gorman grad’s No. 15 jerseys were sprinkled everywhere within the crowd of Pac-12 fans filing into MGM Grand Garden Arena for Thursday’s quarterfinal games of the conference tournament. One young fan even had the blue version of the Bruins’ brand new adidas uniform: sleeved jerseys and shorts in Zubaz print.
“Our players love them,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said of the uniforms that have been universally panned on social media. “Shabazz was just talking about how nice they fit.”
Playing in his hometown for the first time as a Bruin, everything eventually fit just right as Muhammad helped lead top-seeded UCLA to an 80-75 victory against No. 9 seed Arizona State and a spot in Friday’s semifinals with 16 points and nine rebounds. Nearly all of that came in the second half because early on, Muhammad battled foul trouble and possibly some nerves that come with trying to put on a good show for fans who cheered him loudly in pregame introductions.
Arizona State led most of the game and ballooned its lead to 13 with 1:03 left in the first half. That’s when Muhammad started to rise to this occasion. His dunk over 7-foot-2 Sun Devil Jordan Bachynski may seem like Muhammad’s signature moment from this game, but really, it was that final minute of the first half.
Howland “rolled the dice” by putting Muhammad back in with two fouls, and on three possessions, he assisted a Jordan Adams 3-pointer, forced a turnover and then ended the half with an offensive rebound and putback that pulled the Bruins within eight.
Everything Muhammad did the rest of the way — the power dunk over a big man that he said matched only his Gaels highlights, the snarl after another offensive rebound and putback cut the deficit to two with 5:38 to play — was established in that minute of action. That’s when Muhammad went from a guy trying to impress fans to a guy doing everything to help his team win. And in the process, he accomplished both.
“That’s what happens when you’re composed and relaxed,” Muhammad said.
That description is a far cry from how things played out in the final two seconds, when the outcome was already decided. Muhammad caught the inbounds pass in the corner and was knocked down by ASU’s Carrick Felix, who then stood up and appeared to kick Muhammad.
“Yeah, he did kick me,” said Muhammad, who quickly got up and got in Felix’s face. The subsequent ruckus led to four technical fouls, including one for Muhammad, who couldn’t even take his free throws for the original foul because the technical was his fifth foul of the game.
That’s fine, though. His task was complete, at least until Friday’s 6 p.m. semifinal against No. 4 seed Arizona.
“Shabazz did a fantastic job taking the game over,” Howland said.
Muhammad rose to the occasion, and then he sat down.