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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

UCLA Is Back in All of Its Glory

March 16, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

ATLANTA — One shining moment? Try two hours worth.

Cinderella? Try seven baggy-shorted kids scraping like a fireplace broom.

What happened for UCLA Sunday was more than March Madness.

It was goodness gracious.

Alone against a giant team in a giant dome facing giant odds, the Bruins rediscovered their coach, their teammates, themselves.

Stalking off the Georgia Dome floor after an 85-82 second-round NCAA tournament victory over Michigan, glares still fixed, jaws still tight, their message was clear.

UCLA was UCLA again.

Undersized and outmanned upon arrival, they took the floor later than the Wolverines, tentatively tore off their sweats.

Then a wondrous thing that can still happen to this program, happened.

Underneath the blue uniforms surfaced the heart of Bill Walton, the brains of Gail Goodrich, the fire of Cameron Dollar.

Rico Hines was soon taking a charge like Tyus Edney once charged.

J.R. Henderson was throwing down baseline bombs like Jamaal Wilkes once bombed.

Kris Johnson was as cool on the free-throw line as an old coach had once been on the sideline.

It was previously written in this space that, sluggish and disorganized at the end of the season, the Bruins had no chance of defeating Michigan.

This space forgot that, even if just for one game, there remains power in that blue.

A skeptical sports world was reminded Sunday in what might have been UCLA's most inspirational victory since the 1995 national championship.

"It seems like no matter what we do, it's never enough to make people happy," said Toby Bailey, still serious afterward, still seeking justice. "We wanted to make sure everybody left it all out on the court.

"Don't say later, 'I wish I dove for that loose ball, I wish I took that charge.' Do it now."

And so they did, not just the three memorable seniors, but everyone else.

There was freshman Travis Reed, two inches shorter and nearly 80 pounds lighter than Michigan center Robert Traylor, shoving him around like a piece of old farm equipment.

"Traylor was fighting like a crazed dog who just lost his last meal, I was like his bone," said Reed. "I'm like, 'How am I going to do this?' "

But he did it. When Michigan pulled within one point with 4:27 remaining, Reed soared over Traylor after a missed UCLA shot, grabbed a rebound and was fouled.

He made one free throw, Michigan missed two shots on its next possession, and the Bruins went on a 9-0 run.

Then there was freshman Hines, whom Traylor towers over by five inches and outweighs by 100 pounds.

Earlier in the second half, with Michigan trailing by only three, Traylor came free on the baseline, grabbed the ball, and moved to dunk. But Hines moved directly in front of him.

Traylor fell, did not dunk, and missed both foul shots. The Bruins then went on an 11-4 run.

"I saw him coming and thought, 'I've got to get over there, I can't let him dunk, this team feeds off dunks,' " Hines recalled. "So I closed my eyes and let him fall on me."

In the stands, Hines' mother briefly panicked.

"After the game, I had to run over and tell her that I was not crushed," he said.

Then there was freshman guard Earl Watson, who admitted he was nervous during his poor first-round game Friday against Miami.

When Baron Davis injured his knee early, he came over to Watson and said, "Be there for both of us."

Watson was, scoring seven second-half points while contributing to the perimeter defense that held Michigan star Louis Bullock to seven field goals in 27 attempts.

"I knew I couldn't do worse than Friday," Watson said. "I figured I would just give it everything I had."

He said he was also helped by the Bruins' decision to shoot around at the Georgia Dome on Sunday morning before the game. They skipped that session Friday, which players said contributed to their slow start against Miami.

Which brings this story to Steve Lavin, last year's marvelous rookie coach who has been criticized lately in this space for a perceived failure to manage his team.

On Sunday, Lavin ran the Bruins, ran the game, probably ran Michigan's interim boss Brian Ellerbe out of a head coaching job.

Throughout the country today, Jim Harrick will command the biggest headlines because of his Rhode Island upset of Kansas.

But not here, not now, not with a coach who has once again saved his best for March.

First, Lavin installed a form of the Bruins' base defense in which the zone collapsed around the Wolverines' big men while still keeping tabs on the outside shooters.

He then exhorted them to talk, and for once, they did.

"Switch!" "Scream!" "Swarm!"

The words mixed with the squeaks and sighs to amount to the Bruins' most timely defense of the season.

Said Johnson: "The difference was, this is the first time this year we've talked to each other on the court like that."

Lavin also sold the Bruins on spreading out their offense and actually using picks and passes. When one Bruin was covered, another was always open.

At times, if you squinted, you could have sworn you were watching Princeton.

Then, down the stretch, during several Michigan runs, Lavin gathered his team around his sweat-soaked shirt and made his players believe.

Told them this was a heavyweight fight. Said it was like Ali-Frazier. Convinced them that no matter how hard Michigan punched, they could punch back.

The Bruins led by three points, then suddenly 11 points. By seven points, then 12 points. By one point, then 10 points

"I don't know where he comes up with all those crazy things," Henderson said of Lavin's fight references, laughing. "But I believe them. They work."

Will the Bruins be able to turn this belief into another stunning upset Friday in the South Regional semifinal against Kentucky?

I'm not touching that with a 10-foot tractor.

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