The UCLA Bruins are one victory away from their third straight Final Four.
They're not quite sure how.
Even though Kevin Love scored a career-high 29 points, the Bruins nearly frittered away a 21-point halftime lead before they hung on to defeat Western Kentucky 88-78 in an NCAA West Regional semifinal on Thursday night.
In the second round, they pulled out a two-point victory over Texas AM in a virtual home game.
"This is very typical of us," coach Ben Howland said. "We like to make things exciting, you know, make me lose hair."
Given its recent history, top-seeded UCLA (34-3) is taking nothing for granted against No. 3-seeded Xavier on Saturday, when the Bruins will play for a trip to San Antonio and the Final Four.
"We've got our hands full," Howland said. "We understand that."
The Bruins were more relieved than happy to survive the game Hilltoppers, who took advantage of UCLA's sloppy play to pull within four points late in the game.
"Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable," Love said. "That's all I can say.
"It was unacceptable the way we played in the second half. If we're going to keep playing like that, we're not going to be in this tournament very long."
The Bruins routed overmatched Mississippi Valley State in the first round but haven't resembled a No. — seed since.
Without Love, the Bruins would be in hibernation already. Love had 14 rebounds and hit 10-of-14 shots from the floor.
Love had help from James Keefe, who had 18 points and 12 rebounds, both career highs. Russell Westbrook added 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Keefe, a sophomore who has battled back from shoulder surgery last August, played sparingly most of the season.
"I mean, this is why I came back, you know?" Keefe said.
Tyrone Brazelton scored 31 points &
25 in the second half &
and Courtney Lee added 18 for 12th-seeded Western Kentucky (29-7), which reached the round of 16 for the first time since 1993.
"We just dug ourselves too big of a hole in the first half," Western Kentucky coach Darrin Horn said. "I'm unbelievably proud of my team."
Early on, the Bruins looked primed for a blowout, blitzing the Hilltoppers with a 23-4 run midway through the first half.
UCLA led 41-20 at halftime, but Western Kentucky wouldn't go away. The Hilltoppers began pressing, and the Bruins started to unravel. They had 12 turnovers in the first 15 minutes of the second half and finished with 19, a season high.
The Bruins appeared in trouble when point guard Darren Collison fouled out &
for the first time this year &
with 5:39 to play. Collison had four points and four turnovers.
"They came out in some different angles," Collison said. "We didn't read the plays right. Everybody was sped up."
As the U.S. Airways Center crowd got behind them, the Hilltoppers went on a 19-6 run to whittle the lead to 61-57 with 6:50 to play. Brazelton capped the run by scoring eight unanswered points in less than a minute, on back-to-back 3-pointers and a layup.
But A.J. Slaughter missed a 3-pointer that would have pulled Western Kentucky within a point, and then Love scored from close range. Josh Shipp, an erratic long-range shooter, hit a — to push UCLA's lead to 68-59 with 4:30 to play.
"That in a nutshell was the game," Horn said. "It changed all the momentum. We had spent so much energy to get back into it, played so hard to get back, if that three goes down and we cut it to one, it's a totally different situation down the finish."
Howland was so desperate to stem the tide that he called his final timeout. Steadied, the Bruins did not let the Hilltoppers draw closer than six the rest of the way.
Perhaps it was no surprise that UCLA let the scrappy Hilltoppers back in the game. The Bruins rolled into the desert on a 12-game winning streak, but they hadn't been dominant. Five of their last eight wins had been by three points or less, and another came after they forced overtime.
Howland said it "would have been a lot funner" if his team had played as well in the second half as it had in the first. It didn't.
"Against teams at this level, that's not going to happen," he said. "You're not going to see blowouts."
Love leads UCLA to Elite Eight