March 18, 2017
By Bill Koch
SACRAMENTO – As soon as Leonard Stokes saw the NCAA Tournament bracket last Sunday and noticed UCLA looming as a possible second-round opponent for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, his thoughts returned to March 17, 2002, the last time UC played UCLA.
Fifteen years later, whenever he sees UCLA mentioned, he said he still thinks about that game, where he produced his most brilliant performance as a UC Bearcat only to suffer his most devastating disappointment.
“That was the toughest loss ever,” Stokes said Saturday in a telephone interview from Cincinnati.
The Bearcats were 31-3, ranked No. 5 in the nation and seeded No. 1 in the West Regional. They romped over Boston University, 90-52, in their first-round game and then prepared to face the Bruins, who started the season ranked No. 3, but were 20-11, unranked and seeded eighth.
Stokes played the game of his life at Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena, scoring a career-high 39 points with 10 rebounds and five assists, but the Bearcats fell to UCLA, 105-101, in double overtime.
They’ll get another shot at the Bruins on Sunday in the second round of the South Regional at Golden 1 Center.
In addition to Stokes, the 2002 UC team featured first-team All-American Steve Logan, Immanuel McElroy, Jamaal Davis and Donald Little in its starting lineup. Logan scored 18 points and recorded seven assists against the Bruins, but made only six of 18 shots. Fortunately for the Bearcats, Stokes was on his game. If he didn’t know it after scoring 16 points in the first half, he was sure of it after a bizarre play in the second.
“I knew I had it going because I shot one shot in the second half and the ball was short,” Stokes said. “I fell on the floor because I got fouled and they didn’t call it. By the time the ball bounced – it hit the rim and bounced on the floor - I got up off the floor, got it and laid it in. So I said, man, this is my day right here.”
The Bearcats, coached by Bob Huggins, led by 13 in the first half and by 10 at halftime. They were still ahead, 65-54, midway through the second half when Matt Barnes made back-to-back 3-pointers with 5:08 left. Jason Kapono tied the score at 71-71 with a 3-pointer.
“There was one swing where they shot a 3-point shot,” Stokes said. “It went in. They called a foul. They took the ball out of bounds, hit another three and then we turned it over, so they had an 8-point swing in a matter of like 10 seconds with like four minutes left or three minutes left. It was pretty crazy.”
The score was tied at 80-80 at the end of regulation after a Stokes basket with 35 seconds left and 90-90 after the first overtime. UCLA scored the first four points in the second overtime to take control. Late back-to-back treys by Field Williams and Logan pulled UC within two with 1.6 seconds left. Ryan Walcott then sealed the victory for the Bruins with two free throws.
“The front page of USA Today the next day had a picture of me crying, walking to the sideline,” Stokes said. “I was do defeated because that team that we had that year it was such a family atmosphere and we were so good we really thought that we were gonna have a shot (at the national championship), that it was our year. And then to lose like that, it was just like a light bulb went off. This is it. I’m never gonna play with Logan again. I’m never gonna play with Jamaal Davis again. It was just one of those moments when I lost it and I started crying with three seconds left in the game when I got subbed out.”
Stokes, who will receive an Outstanding Alumni Award for UC Athletics on April 20, said he has never completely gotten over that game.
“To this day when I see UCLA I still have a little chip on my shoulder about it,” Stokes said. “It was a classic game. I would have traded every one of those 39 points if we could have won that game. I thought we really had a chance that year to do something special.”
Stokes is now the CEO of Smart Growth Construction in Cincinnati. A UC win over the Bruins on Sunday would help ease the pain, he said, even if it wouldn’t completely erase it.
“I am going to be rooting as loud as I can wherever I watch the game,” he said. “I think they have a chance because the Pac-10 (now the Pac-12), that conference out there isn’t usually known for their toughness and I don’t think they’ve seen a defense like that. If our guys score and play like they did yesterday I think they’ll be in for a good day.
“Then I could kind of live vicariously through the young guys who I have a great rapport with anyway. I’d really like to see them do well, genuinely. They’re such a good team and they want each other to do well. I really like that. It’s just so fun to be around them because they joke and they laugh. They call me and (DerMarr Johnson) old man all the time. It’s a good group of kids and I hope they can really pull it out.”
Bill Koch covered UC athletics for 27 years – 15 at The Cincinnati Post and 12 at The Cincinnati Enquirer – before joining the staff of GoBearcats.com in January, 2015.