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NCAA COLLEGE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Bruins Find Sweet Spot

Something about Maryland made the Bruins realize they could throw out all the negatives and fulfill their great promise.

March 19, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

MINNEAPOLIS — Just watched the dead-in-February UCLA basketball team fly into the . . . the third week in March!

(Sorry. Can't shake the alley-oops.)

Spent the last two hours at a combination coaching clinic-dance lesson, marveling as the Bruins whipped favored Maryland . . . by 35 points!

(Can't help it. Those alley-oops are contagious.)

It was UCLA's best game in four years under Steve Lavin, its most compelling effort since the 1995 national championship game, and one that will scare . . . the dickens out of every other tournament team!

Enough, enough. Even if it didn't seem like it, the Bruins did more than merely throw up those long passes that teammates jammed loudly through the basket Saturday in their 105-70 victory over the Terps in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

They threw up the notion that these were America's biggest underachievers, and dunked it into living rooms everywhere.

They threw up the criticism that Steve Lavin cannot manage a good game plan, and dunked it into old stacks of this column.

They threw up fears that this program's glory days have ended indefinitely, and dunked them to a suburb of Detroit, where the Bruins will play Iowa State Thursday in the Midwest Regional semifinals.

Right now, you don't want to be Iowa State.

Right now, you may not even want to be Michigan State, which the Bruins probably would play in the regional final.

Both are higher-seeded teams. Both are more experienced.

But neither has yet shown an ability to walk across orange coals for 40 minutes and survive.

On Saturday in front of 26,358 awed folks at the Metrodome, the Bruins were those coals.

A brilliant transformation. A promise kept. From lumps to scorchers.

Of course, right now, you also might not want to be UCLA.

Heaven help the team that set everyone up for a run at a 12th national title, then lost to Iowa State by 20.

It could happen. With this team, anything can happen. Because anything has happened.

The good thing for Bruin fans is this team finally realizes it.

"We're not even halfway there," warned Earl Watson. "We know we have to go right back to work."

Oh, yeah. UCLA also threw up the criticism that Watson could not play point guard and dunked it into the thick school record books.

Sixteen assists and no turnovers. Seventeen points and one missed shot.

He scored 14 points in the first 3:18 of the second half.

He threw five of the six alley-oop passes, several from halfcourt.

All that, and he slammed down the sixth alley-oop on a pass from Jason Kapono.

"That's what you call a little kick-back," Kapono said.

Watson agreed. It was all about a little kick-back.

"I know the fans have been killing me," Watson said. "Earlier this year I looked at Coach Lavin and said, 'When am I going to get a home game? It always feels like I'm on the road.' "

He said the heckling hurt him. He said it also did something else.

"That hurt motivated me," he said. "I want to thank everybody for criticizing me. I knew I had to grow into the position [from shooting to point guard], and that helped me do it."

The proceedings came from such a different world, Watson's statistics weren't even the best ones.

How about Maryland being out of timeouts with 16:42 remaining in the game?

How about Sean Farnham playing eight minutes?

Or, and this is a personal favorite, how about a halfcourt drive and slam dunk by Brandon Brooks?

Hint: Brooks is the goalie on the UCLA water polo team.

The turning point?

"The tip-off," Watson said seriously.

Possibly another occurred with the score at 19-all midway through the first half with Dan Gadzuric at the foul line.

Maryland's Tahj Holden leaned down and said something to Jerome Moiso, who started laughing and talking back.

"He said, 'I'm not afraid of you,' " Moiso said. "I said, 'I'm not afraid of you. In fact, ain't nobody afraid of you.' "

Gadzuric made both of his free throws--a starstruck night indeed--and the Bruins were never equaled again.

Before you could say, "Gary Williams is going to implode!" the Bruins were running their screening halfcourt offense directly from the manual, and their shifting defense with precision.

Everyone passed. Everyone set screens. Everyone kept their hands up. These great players were finally a great team.

And, of course, there were all those alley-oops; dangerous plays on most nights, perfect ones here.

"There is a mental aspect to the alley-oop," Watson said. "Our guys can put them down so hard, I think it can take away the other team's momentum and give it back to us."

It also helps when the guys catching the ball in midair are bigger and quicker than the guys trying to guard them.

Soon the affair became so silly, over on the bench Kapono took off his headband.

And the Bruins' embattled coach could finally crow.

Late in the game, a credible observer under the basket heard Lavin walk up to one of the officials and laughingly say, "Two weeks ago they were going to fire me, and now we're up by 22."

Nothing wrong with that. Of all who deserved to bask a little Saturday, he was certainly in the front row.

"This all started in practice yesterday," said Farnham, who observes such things. "All the little things we did in practice, playing hard, paying attention, I could just tell that we had the intensity we needed to win this game."

That starts with the coach, who offered final proof of the strange evening by resorting to understatement.

"I thought we made a little progress in the right direction," Lavin said.

Yeah. And Tyus Edney took a few nice dribbles one night in Boise.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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