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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / WCC TOURNAMENT : Title Could Be Taken by Almost Any Team

March 05, 1994|ROB FERNAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — It comes as no surprise that most West Coast Conference basketball coaches consider the conference tournament title, and the NCAA tournament berth that goes with it, up for grabs.

Considering that the last-place team beat the champion and that nearly half of the regular-season games were won by five points or fewer, separating the haves from the have-nots has become difficult.

"I honestly believe that any of the eight teams has a shot at winning the conference tournament," Pepperdine Coach Tom Asbury said.

The Waves (16-10), who needed a late-season surge to tie San Francisco for second place, will play the second game today, about 2:30, against seventh-place St. Mary's (13-13). Pepperdine has a 12-game winning streak against the Gaels.

San Diego (15-10) plays Portland (13-16) in the tournament opener at noon, champion Gonzaga (20-6) plays last-place Loyola Marymount (6-20) at 6 p.m. and San Francisco (16-9) plays Santa Clara (13-13) about 8:30.

Pepperdine has played in the last three tournament finals, winning titles in 1991 and 1992. But the most successful team in tournament history--13-4 in seven seasons--did not look like a contender three weeks ago.

During a rocky stretch, the Waves lost three games in a row and five of seven, falling into a sixth-place tie with Loyola. A disgusted Asbury benched his starting guards, Damin Lopez and Bryan Parker, at the start of a game at Gonzaga on Feb. 10, the second of two consecutive losses to the Bulldogs.

The Waves haven't lost since, however. They start the tournament with a four-game winning streak, their longest of the season and currently the longest of any WCC team.

"We've played a little better as of late, that's an encouraging sign," Asbury said. "We've shot the ball a little better and we've turned the ball over a little less."

Seniors Dana Jones and Lopez have led the resurgence. Jones, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 19.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and shot 72% last week in road victories over St. Mary's and Santa Clara. Lopez, a 5-9 guard, has improved his outside shooting and leads the WCC with 86 three-point baskets.

Loyola's fortunes, on the other hand, have taken a turn for the worse. After winning four of five games during a stretch that included upsets of Pepperdine and Gonzaga, the Lions ended WCC play with five consecutive losses.

"We've been shorthanded most of the year and our kids are physically worn down," Coach John Olive said earlier in the week. "I (gave) them a couple of days off. Hopefully that will help."

Last season, Santa Clara started the tournament on a hot streak and upset regular-season champion Pepperdine in the final before going on to stun Arizona in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The tournament semifinals are set for Sunday starting at 5 p.m., with the championship game to be televised nationally by ESPN at 9 p.m. Monday.

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