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NCAA COLLEGE BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT

Unlikely Rally Had Its Roots

UCLA: The Bruins' rise to the Sweet 16 may seem surprising, but a month of winning paved the way.

March 20, 2000|SCOTT HOWARD-COOPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just try to figure the eight. Impossible.

Too unpredictable. Mind blowing. A crazy eight.

UCLA has not lost in a month, since Feb. 19 at Arizona, when there was little left but to swallow hard and spin the National Invitation Tournament as another opportunity and a tournament with its own special tradition. Of course, not that the Bruins would have thought so much about the tradition that they would have lobbied to host a first-round game, knowing that only about 6,000 people would have come to Pauley Pavilion, not all of them supporters.

"Six thousand?" one athletic department official said. "Try four. Three."

And then it happened, without warning and without any tangible cause. Eight consecutive wins, six to end the regular season and two in the tournament--the NCAA tournament--putting UCLA in the Sweet 16 against Iowa State on Thursday night in Auburn Hills, Mich.

There can be no real explanation, other than the planets being aligned. It's not the return of JaRon Rush, because he was there for the first-round flameout in 1999, and the unimpressive showings to start the season, and he did not play in the great comeback at California. It's nothing any Bruin has been able to explain, beyond practicing better or showing maturity.

The cause remains the only uncertain part. The next thing anyone knows, a giant has been awakened, a team that had dropped into seventh place in the Pacific 10 Conference and then outscored the eight opponents, 80.8-66.5, outshot them, 51.4%-40%, and outrebounded them, 40.1-32.5.

Eight victories.

Four against tournament opponents.

Two--Stanford and Maryland--that would rank in the top 50 games in school history.

One comeback.

UCLA 75, Oregon 69, Feb. 24, Pauley Pavilion--When it all began.

Staring at a four-game losing streak for the first time since 1989-90 and a non-winning record in the Pac-10 for the first time since 1985-86, the Bruins started the climb with a confidence-building victory over a tournament-bound team. Earl Watson had 22 points to equal his season high, 10 rebounds to set a career high, five assists and two steals.

UCLA 69, Oregon State 59, Feb. 26, Pauley Pavilion--When it could have come apart.

The first winning streak in a month and the first conference same-week sweep in a little more than a year came with the reminder of the fragility. Dan Gadzuric sat out the second half after tendinitis flared in his right knee.

Part of it also was that the Bruins were going so well without him, namely a 15-0 run in a little more than five minutes that turned a 39-39 tie into a 54-39 lead. Ryan Bailey had seven points in the decisive rally, but the biggest performance came from Jerome Moiso, who broke out of a slump to get 16 points and eight rebounds. He hasn't slowed since.

UCLA 83, California 62, March 2, Berkeley--When it started to look like something special.

In the final 26 minutes, the Bruins shot 66.7% (24 of 36), committed only six turnovers and switched from a man-to-man defense to a matchup zone that silenced the Cal offense. All part of going from 19 points down to 22 up, eventually to finish with the 21-point margin.

A 16th win with three to play put the Bruins back on a realistic track for a tournament bid. Given the way the night started, nothing could have been more unexpected. Until. . . .

UCLA 94, Stanford 93, OT, March 4, Palo Alto--When it officially became something special.

The Bruins didn't just defeat the No. 1 team in the nation on the road, they did it after trailing by 15 points early, after Gadzuric had fouled out with 5:48 left in regulation and Moiso fouled out with 2:10 left in overtime.

JaRon Rush returned from his 24-game suspension, played for the first time in about three months, and had a team-high 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench, including a 13-foot baseline jumper with three seconds left for the win.

UCLA 65, Washington State 58, March 9, Pauley Pavilion--When it looked like old times.

They defeated the Pac-10's last-place team, but led by only four points with two minutes left.

Coach Steve Lavin took the blame, saying he worked his players too hard in the three practices in the days before and probably took away their legs. He also made a lineup change, putting Billy Knight at shooting guard in place of Ryan Bailey.

UCLA 90, Washington 64, March 11, Pauley Pavilion--When it was goodbye.

Making the Washington State game a distant memory, the Bruins had an impressive tournament tuneup by routing the Huskies in the final home game of the season, making one final statement to the selection committee. About 24 hours later, UCLA was made the No. 6 team in the Midwest Regional, surpassing its own expectations.

A 23-7 run to close the half made it 47-27 at the break. It got as lopsided as 32 points, 79-47 with 7:01 remaining.

UCLA 65, Ball State 57, March 16, Minneapolis--When it shook the ghosts.

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