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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S TOURNAMENT : A Final Shot at Final Four : West: That's what UCLA seniors have riding on today's regional final against second-seeded Connecticut.

March 25, 1995|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — Ninety-nine victories, and one more chance.

For UCLA's three centerpiece seniors, a winding career of regular-season success--and NCAA tournament disappointment--has led them to today's fateful game against second-seeded Connecticut in the West Regional final.

One last shot at the Final Four.

Friday afternoon, in a makeshift interview area somewhere in the tunnels of the Oakland Coliseum Arena, Ed O'Bannon, Tyus Edney, George Zidek and their teammates talked about UConn's up-tempo reputation, East Coast biases and staying focused with the circus spotlight shining on them.

But in their most reflective moments, the Bruin players spoke about perfect endings and the burden of a collective dream.

"The weight is there," O'Bannon said. "We're going to try and deal with it as best as possible. For us to do that, we have to make sure we take them one at a time. We have to win this game. And then win the next game. . . ."

In their almost four seasons at UCLA, the senior class has registered 99 victories, and 16 in a row through Thursday's defeat of Mississippi State in the regional semifinals. If No. 100 occurs today, it will boost UCLA into its first appearance in a Final Four since 1980 and the first of Coach Jim Harrick's career.

With O'Bannon, Edney and Zidek as freshmen--and with only Edney playing a major role--Harrick's 1991-92 team reached the West Regional final, only to be denied a Final Four berth by Indiana.

This year, Harrick has openly targeted the Final Four, posting a picture of the Kingdome, this year's Final Four site, in the team locker room and taking his players on an impromptu trip to the arena when they were in Seattle to play Washington in early February.

"That's what I want to accomplish," Edney said. "That's one thing I've always wanted to do, make it to the Final Four."

Edney and the other seniors insist that they will not consider their UCLA careers a failure if they do not make at least one trip to the Final Four, but Friday they could not help but recognize the importance of this game.

"We're conscious of it, but at the same time, we're trying to stay focused," O'Bannon said. "We seniors want to get that 100th win, but at the same time, we won't get it unless we're focused."

Freshman guard Toby Bailey said of the seniors, "They've worked so hard--they're the hardest workers on our team--and I know how much they want it. It would just end their careers on a perfect note, going to the Final Four."

As always, with everything UCLA does, legends haunt the background.

With the Bruins at the top of the polls and playing with a striking blend of speed, defensive intensity and unselfishness, even the young players say they know what the school's 15th Final Four berth--and potential 11th national championship--would mean to a school that won 10 titles in 12 years under John Wooden.

"A lot of the players who played in those days have come to me and said, 'This reminds me of when I was playing here,' " Bailey said, referring to men such as Bill Walton, Mike Warren and Marques Johnson. "I think going to the Final Four would bring the magic back to UCLA."

But UConn (28-4), which has never won a national title or made it to the Final Four, is not without motivation--or size, skill and a history of tournament heartbreak.

The Huskies were knocked out in the East Regional final by Duke in 1990, on a last-second shot by Christian Laettner. Last year, UConn lost in the East Regional semifinal to Florida in overtime, when star Donyell Marshall missed two free throws that could have won it in regulation.

This year, with Marshall in the NBA, Connecticut, the Big East regular-season champion, has used a blistering running game and balanced attack--and surged through the early tournament rounds with senior forward Donny Marshall--no relation to Donyell--stepping up to average almost 25 points in its three victories. Sophomore swingman Ray Allen and point guard Kevin Ollie are UConn's other main threats.

Although the Huskies won their first 15 games and held the No. 1 ranking for two weeks, they lost four of their 14 games heading into the tournament--including 16- and 17-point losses to Villanova--and were hardly considered a major national championship threat when the brackets were set.

But convincing victories over Tennessee Chattanooga, Cincinnati and Maryland--with the Huskies scoring 96 points or more each time--have ended the doubts.

"If they want to run, let's run," Bailey said. "We're not slowing it down for anybody."

Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun says his team looks forward to running with the Bruins, and may the faster team win.

"Our objective is to keep knocking on the door until the door opens," Calhoun said. "And we're knocking pretty loud right now."

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