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SPORTS EXTRA / SELECTION-DAY REPORT / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Two for the Show

Midwest: After salvaging near-disastrous season, Bruins know how fortunate they are to be seeded sixth.

March 13, 2000|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not-your-average Selection Sunday at UCLA came with the mild surprise of being the sixth-seeded team in the Midwest Regional, higher than even the Bruins dared to consider, and with a little-known opponent for the first round, Ball State.

But the only thing that really mattered was that it came at all.

Closing the regular season with six consecutive victories didn't make the Bruins forget how close they came to crash landing in the NIT, a blasphemous course that seemed inevitable only three weeks earlier, so they were not about to nonchalantly accept the good news: Thursday at Minneapolis in the Metrodome against the Mid-American Conference tournament champion.

So what that a berth was inevitable after sweeping the Washington schools last week. Or that this was expected in other ways--because they play at UCLA. Or that they're in the tournament for the 12th consecutive season and, at 19-11, are in position to reach the 20-win plateau for the same 12th consecutive season.

The Bruins didn't take this selection for granted because they couldn't afford to until the very end, which in itself was different.

The Bruins took the news with the proper measure of appreciation and pride, instead of the assumption that usually accompanied the end of seasons around Westwood, so that was also different.

"All the stuff we've gone through," said swingman Rico Hines, a junior co-captain.

"We've gone through just about everything, so this is the most special one for me. This is more special than my first time, and the first time is always great.

"Because everyone had been telling us that we suck, that we're the worst team in UCLA history, stuff like that. To fight back the last three weeks, get a good seeding and in a good bracket, we really appreciate it.

"The past couple teams, guys were really happy, but kind of like, 'Let's get our food, let's get going.' This year had a different feeling, because of everything we've gone through."

Gonzaga . . . the investigation into and suspension of JaRon Rush . . . Colorado State . . . the academic suspension of Matt Barnes . . . Washington . . . the early injuries . . . USC . . . the near-constant criticism of Coach Steve Lavin . . . the Arizona trip.

To name a few.

Come Sunday, there was no food at the team's viewing party in the Pauley Pavilion locker room, but a good deal deal of humility. They watched on TV and waited, first as Pepperdine, a December victim, and Oregon, a major stepping stone in the return to life, went East and as Stanford, at the top of the Bruin comeback, got No. 1 in the South. The winning streak eliminated the great uncertainty about whether the Bruins would make it, but did nothing to answer the question of at what level.

Most speculation, even within, put them anywhere from a No. 7 seed to a No. 9, their standing bobbing along by the day--way up after Stanford, down after Washington State, back up to a credible level after Washington on Saturday.

The news arrived as a continuation of the winning streak: No. 6, versus an opponent that entered the MAC tournament as the second-seeded team and beat 15-15 Miami of Ohio by three points for the NCAA bid.

Yes, they were appreciating this day.

"You never take the NCAA tournament for granted," Lavin said. "But this has been a unique time in my nine years at UCLA as an assistant and head coach.

"In years past, coming down the stretch, there wasn't that single- elimination sense to every game like we had this time. That's what made this season very unique.

"I think it's rewarding or gratifying or satisfying to see this group of players have the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament after the type of season they have had, with what they have so admirably turned around."

Said guard Earl Watson: "Yeah, it's different. The way we earned this one.

"We definitely do not take this one for granted. It's going to make us more hungry, make us play harder, because we know how close we came to not getting here."

Midwest Regional

Thursday at Minneapolis

UCLA vs. Ball State

Times Announced Today

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