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Surprise, Surprise

UCLA: Bruins once again are being shipped out of West Region, this time as the No. 2-seeded team in the Midwest.

March 10, 1997|From Associated Press

UCLA is hitting the road to play far from home in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

It's a familiar story for the Bruins, who got shipped out of the West Region for the second straight year and third time in four years.

Last year's trip to the Southeast Region was a disaster. UCLA, the 1995 national champion, won the Pacific-10 Conference, received a No. 4 seed and promptly lost to Princeton 43-41 in the first round.

Sandwiched in between that defeat and the Bruins' 11th national title was a first-round loss to Tulsa in 1994 at Oklahoma City.

"I've been in three tournaments and two of them we've exited early," senior forward Charles O'Bannon said. "I've had enough of that, we've all had enough of that. We're looking to change things."

The Bruins (21-7) won nine straight games to wrap up their third consecutive Pac-10 championship. They received the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Regional, and will play No. 15 Charleston Southern (16-13) on Thursday in Auburn Hills, Mich.

The Charleston, S.C., school earned the Big South's automatic berth by defeating Liberty 64-54 in the conference tournament.

"We know they beat a good South Carolina team at South Carolina," O'Bannon said. "They won their conference tournament so that means they're on a winning streak right now."

UCLA has righted itself after a chaotic start. Jim Harrick was fired as coach two weeks before the season began, and replaced by top assistant Steve Lavin, who had no prior head coaching experience.

Still to come were losses to Tulsa in the first round of the NIT, and No. 1 Kansas, Illinois and Louisville. In between, the Bruins stumbled to a 48-point loss to Stanford, the worst in school history.

Since losing at Stanford on Jan. 9, UCLA has gone 14-3 and won nine straight. O'Bannon has picked up his game, and leads the team in scoring (17.3 points) and rebounds (7.2).

The lower half of the Midwest draw appears to favor the Bruins.

A win over Charleston Southern would put UCLA into a second-round game against either No. 7 Xavier or No. 10 Vanderbilt. Potentially, the Bruins could face No. 3 Cincinnati at the regional semifinal in San Antonio, Texas.

"I've checked out some of the teams that we have a chance of playing and I like our chances," O'Bannon said. "I'm not looking ahead, but I'd like to get to Texas."

That's because O'Bannon would reunite with his older brother, Ed, who was recently traded to the Dallas Mavericks. Ed was the national player of the year in 1995, when he led the Bruins to the NCAA title as a senior. Charles was a sophomore on that team.

Besides studying its own draw, UCLA couldn't help noticing where other teams landed.

There were smiles among the Bruins when they saw Pac-10 rival California drew Princeton as a first-round opponent in the East Regional.

"We did have a little joke about that," guard Kris Johnson said. "We were kind of like, 'Uh-oh. Better watch out.' They're (Princeton) actually having a better year this year than they did last year."

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