Arash Markazi
Sunday March 16th, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Darren Collison shook his head as if he was hoping the scene was nothing more than a bad dream. As he walked toward UCLA's bench, down eight points to Stanford in the first half of the Pac-10 title game, he saw a grimacing Kevin Love sitting on the floor, getting treatment on his lower back in front of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who was wearing a walking boot on his left foot.

"My heart sunk a little bit," said Collison. "Anytime your star player gets hurt it's something you wonder about looking toward the future. How are we going to win?"

A few hours earlier, Collison was with Mbah a Moute as he received treatment on his sprained left ankle, an injury that could keep him out the first week of the NCAA tournament, telling him how much the team needed him back. "You're the real reason why we're here," he said.

"We need Luc to play," he said. "I told Luc even if he's 50-60 percent, we need him in the tournament bad. He's such a leader for us. He makes us go."

UCLA's hopes of advancing to a third straight Final Four began to look bleak. It was a sight he needed to get out of his mind as quickly as possible, as he quickly turned his back to the bench and walked back onto the floor.

"Make no mistake about it. That Final Four trip is a long trip with all the banquets, all the media and all the practices and to lose two years in a row to Florida that hurt me more than anything," Collison said. "Winning right now is the most important thing. Forget about everything else. I want to win so badly. I can't lose again."

While Love, who was diagnosed with a sprained back that will be evaluated Sunday, was able to return, Collison took control of the game, scoring a game-high 28 points and leading UCLA to a 67-64 win that all but locked up a No. 1 in the West Region.

Collison zigzagged around Stanford's big men like a dune buggy through a forest, scoring at will whenever UCLA needed a basket.

"You think that Darren Collison deserves to be a first team all league player in the Pac-10? I don't know, just asking," said Ben Howland, referencing Collison's snub last week before being named the player of the tournament. "He looked pretty good today."

Howland, who conducted his postgame news conference like a moderator, calling out reporters by name and telling the actual moderator that there would be time for two more questions, was in a less jovial mood for much of the game as he dealt with his team's injuries.

Love's back problems began at the beginning of the game as he grimaced and walked toward the sideline and buried his face in a towel at the end of the bench as UCLA athletic trainer Carrie Rubbertino asked what was wrong. "My back," he would say in between winces and deep breathes. "I don't know ... damn ... my back."

Love soon returned the game, occasionally wincing as he scored 12 points and grabbed six rebounds. After the game, he had an ice pack wrapped around his back, hiding it with a Pac-10 Tournament Championship shirt.

"I think it's pulled," said Love of his back, adding that he will play in the NCAA tournament regardless of the diagnosis. "It's something I've never felt before. Every time I went up, I felt a tug on it and it just prevented me from exploding to the basket. I couldn't get any lift. We'll see what happens. I need to get it diagnosed as treated."

A few feet to the left of Love in the Lakers' locker room that housed UCLA during the tournament, Mbah a Moute was getting ice taped to his left ankle. "I feel better, I'm just going to get treatment and ice it until next week and see what happens," he said. "I have confidence that my teammates can win without me but I'm going to try and come back next week, if not Thursday then Saturday."

Before Collison left the locker room, he checked on Love and Mbah a Moute, knowing that any success he hopes of having in the NCAA tournament will rely on the health of Mbah a Moute's ankle and Love's back. On this day, however, it was Collison's back that did much of the lifting.

"Darren picked it up so much," said Love. "We saw him and took his leadership and we went from there. He put our whole team on his back and took us to the promise land."

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