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Trouble Bruin

South Regional: Hines is latest casualty, but UCLA takes carefree attitude into game against Kentucky.

March 20, 1998|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Either they are crazy or on to something weird and wonderful, these exhausted, enlightened, bawdy, bruised up, blood-and-guts, butter-knived Bruins.

Does healthy, wealthy and No. 2-seeded Kentucky know what it's getting into here tonight?

Most of the world, including the team itself, knows that UCLA is about to be outnumbered, outflanked and outfitted for a final, footloose charge.

But, with their eyes lighted by confidence and the fever of surviving improbable odds, the No. 6 Bruins go giggling into this South Regional semifinal at Tropicana Field, laughing hardest at the most recent wounds.

On Monday, the Bruins learned that Baron Davis was lost because of a knee injury. During the trip here, the team had to switch charter planes twice Wednesday--including being diverted to Atlanta when the radar malfunctioned in midair--and didn't arrive in town until after 1 a.m. EST, more than three hours later than scheduled.

Then, at the early-morning post-flight dinner, key reserve Rico Hines accidentally sliced the index finger on his left (non-shooting) hand deep enough that it spurted blood, nicked a nerve and required four stitches Thursday.

His status--like his team's--is highly and apparently in the wake of six months of nonstop distractions, humorously questionable.

"Our season's been the epitome of Murphy's Law," senior guard Toby Bailey said. "You look in the dictionary, and you'll see a picture of our team under Murphy's Law.

"We had problems with the plane, all the delays that we had. . . . Then we're sitting around the table last night and Rico's buttering his bread and he cuts his finger open and has to have stitches--with a butter knife.

"It just seems like this is a whatever-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong type season. . . . Since we've been through it all year long, I think we're past the point of sulking when something happens. It's just comedy now."

The Bruins acknowledged that, especially after their unforeseen victory over third-seeded Michigan last Sunday, they feel released from their usual win-or-else burdens.

So, a month after losing center Jelani McCoy to resignation, weeks after losing to Duke by 36 points, days after losing Davis, and hours before facing one of the most balanced, hottest teams in the tournament, UCLA was relaxed and ruminating.

If the Bruins can find a way to take this hill--if they can face down the only other program with a tradition anywhere close to their own--yes, all doors swing open for them, then.

"We can win the title," senior swingman Kris Johnson said. "I think if we get past Kentucky, we're going to win it all, that's my feeling. If we can get past Kentucky, I don't think we're going to get beat again this year.

"This is the game right after Baron's knee--Rico's finger now--if we get past this, I think we can win out."

Johnson, shrewd amid his prophesying, did not predict victory over Kentucky, which, unlike Michigan, can match UCLA's athleticism and has won nine in a row, including double-digit triumphs in all but one.

The Bruins, now down to four players Coach Steve Lavin played regularly before the tournament, beat Miami and Michigan by a combined six points to advance to the third round.

Kentucky, directed by steely guards Wayne Turner, Jeff Sheppard and Allen Edwards and fast-paced without being out of control, beat South Carolina State and Saint Louis by a total of 40.

UCLA is without its most explosive freshman, and its most versatile backup will, at best, be bandaged and limited. UCLA might have to give some minutes to rarely played Billy Knight and Brandon Loyd.

Kentucky has 10 players ready for Coach Tubby Smith's smooth rotation, and some of their least-used players have scored big numbers in specific games this season.

"Obviously, it's not quite a David and Goliath," Lavin said of the matchup, "but it's moving toward that."

After hearing throughout their careers about their overwhelming talent and under-whelming results, this matchup is moving, the Bruin seniors said cheerily, toward a direct test of wills.

UCLA, with 11 national titles, including one only three years ago, is suddenly . . . Cinderella?

"It's ironic that it comes down to heart, not talent," Johnson said. "That's always been the thing--we win by our talent. . . . Now, it's going to be a true test.

"Does UCLA have the heart to win games when they don't have much talent? That's always been the question. It's funny, but it is refreshing to be the underdog, to be the gritty, scrappy little UCLA guys going against Kentucky, with all the hype and the press.

"It's kind of funny and ironic that we're in the position of say, a Valpo or a school like that."

Well, like Valparaiso if that school had three potential NBA players still active and if all three of them had experienced a national-title season.

"It is change of pace to be the underdogs," Bailey said, "go out there, play loose, you don't have anything to worry about. You don't have any pressure on you but the pressure you put on yourself.

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