Ben Howland

UCLA rebounds from early-season woes to claim Pac-12 title

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After UCLA lost at home to Cal-Poly, we were all ready to send Ben Howland off to the broadcast booth.

Things still didn’t look so swell even after Shabazz Muhammad finally became eligible when Tony Parker  seemed to indicate that he was not entirely happy at UCLA.

Howland might be excused for asking “How you like me now?” today, after his team stayed the course, found some momentum, and nailed down the Pac-12 regular season title, winning 61-54 at Washington to finish the season 23-8 (13-5) and ranked No. 23 in the nation.

The circumstances of the win seemed to vindicate Howland’s decision to build his team around transfers and freshmen, a choice that seemed absurd when the season began. Against Washington, much-maligned former Tar Heel Larry Drew II made a crucial layup late, and frosh Jordan Adams came up with a steal and free throws down the stretch to slam the door. Shabazz Muhammad, who may be auditioning for his NBA close-up as we speak, was the leading scorer with 22 points.

Poise – a word not easily applied to the Bruin program over the past couple of years – won the day, and the season, for UCLA. The Bruins got it done when it mattered most, on the same day when Oregon choked away a shot at the title by losing to cellar-dwelling Utah.

Winning with freshmen and transfers might be John Calipari’s calling card at Kentucky, but he’s got competition from Westwood this year. Veteran play from Drew at the point makes UCLA – a 6-seed in Dave Ommen’s latest bracket predictions – a fair bet to move up the national rankings and the seed lines if they can hold serve in the Pac-12 tournament.

Could a top-4 seed be in the offing for the team that lost to Cal Poly this year? If so, they’ve earned it.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

Marcus Paige, Joel Berry lead No. 9 North Carolina past No. 2 Maryland

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — He’s back.

For the first time this season — and for the first time in more than a year that he hasn’t been hampered with some kind of foot or ankle injury — Marcus Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, and it didn’t take him long to find the form that made him the Preseason National Player of the Year.

On the first Tar Heel possession, Paige came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Kennedy Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. Paige would finish with 20 points and five assists as No. 9 North Carolina put together a fairly resounding win over No. 2 Maryland in the Dean Dome on Tuesday night, winning 89-81.

Paige finished 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, hitting a number of threes in the second half that helped hold off a Maryland push sparked by their own all-american point guard, Melo Trimble.

Trimble was erratic early on, committing three turnovers in the first six minutes and eight on the night, but it was his play at the end of the first half and early second half that kept North Carolina from blowing their doors. At one point, Maryland was down 32-19 and in danger of getting run out of Tobacco Road.

In total, Trimble finished with 23 points and 12 assists, hitting four big threes during that stretch. He either scored or assisted on 11 of Maryland’s first 12 second half field goals.

As good as Paige was, the bigger story may actually be Joel Berry II. He took two dumb threes in the first half — which played a role in Maryland being able to make this a game — and he missed a few free throws late, but overall he was terrific. He finished with 14 points and five assists, making 3-of-5 threes and turning the ball over just twice. He’s clearly beat Nate Britt out at the point guard spot, and his ability to take pressure off of Paige as a secondary ball-handler and playmaker is huge.

(More to come from Chapel Hill…)

VIDEO: Melo Trimble drops Nate Britt with a crossover

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North Carolina is hosting No. 2 Maryland in a heated contest in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Terps sophomore guard Melo Trimble is playing very well and part of his performance was dropping North Carolina’s Nate Britt with a crossover in the second half.

(H/T: The Cauldron)