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SPORTS EXTRA / NCAA TOURNAMENT | The Road to Minneapolis...
Begins Back East : EAST REGIONAL

Lavin's Streaky Bruins Draw Streaking Hofstra

March 12, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The UCLA basketball team is headed for the NCAA tournament as the No. 4 seed in the East region, a bracket rich with potential story lines. The Bruins are two victories away from facing top-seeded Duke, or maybe Georgia, whose coach--Jim Harrick--has some familiarity with the UCLA program.

Oh, the possibilities.

But the Bruins weren't about to let their minds wander Sunday. They have gotten in trouble that way before. They are determined to stay focused on their first-round opponent, Hofstra, whom they will play Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.

"You learn around here not to look past anybody," guard Jason Flowers said.

The Bruins were reminded of that a day earlier when they dropped their season finale to 20-loss Washington, a defeat that surely cost UCLA a higher seed in the tournament.

"If we won [Saturday], we would have been a three seed," Coach Steve Lavin said. "I don't think there's any question about that."

There's nothing the Bruins can do about that now, of course. So they began their crash course on Hofstra basketball Sunday night, trying to gather as much information about the Pride as possible. They know this much: Hofstra has won 18 consecutive games, the nation's longest active winning streak. And that counts for something.

"The best trait of any basketball team is knowing how to win," guard Earl Watson said.

Watson and some of his teammates unwittingly got a head start on the scouting process. When they were in their Seattle hotel rooms Saturday morning, several of the players checked out Hofstra playing Delaware in the America East Conference championship game.

"I was watching it with [reserve guard Todd Ramasar]," Watson said. "I was telling him, 'These are the kind of teams we're going to play.' He was like, 'No way.' And sure enough, it was Hofstra."

Before they met with reporters, UCLA players were briefed on Hofstra's location (Hempstead, N.Y.), nickname (the Pride, formerly the Flying Dutchmen), and the fact the basketball team likes to play an up-tempo style. The last thing the Bruins want to provide is bulletin-board material for their opponents.

Seven years ago, Ed O'Bannon uttered that fateful question--"Where's Tulsa?"--before his team learned the answer the hard way with a first-round loss. Three years before that, it was Tracy Murray who said, "The only thing I know about Penn State is that they're in the Ivy League."

Penn State 74, UCLA 69.

Hofstra is seeded 13th, and it isn't inconceivable that the Pride could pull off an upset. After all, Cal State Northridge is seeded 13th too, and the Matadors beat UCLA at Pauley Pavilion this season.

Only two years have passed since the Bruins suffered a first-round loss to Detroit Mercy, the mere mention of which leaves UCLA coaches and players cringing.

"When we played Detroit Mercy, we just looked beyond them to whoever was in the second round," said guard Billy Knight, who redshirted that season. "I saw them warm up, and Detroit Mercy was ready. They were real focused in their warmups, and we were kind of a lackadaisical with our layup line and stuff. So I could kind of tell from the start."

Watson said he saw some of those warning signs during the Washington game. He complained bitterly after the defeat that not all the players were on the same page, that some were thinking more about their individual statistics than the greater cause.

But he was far more measured in his comments Sunday, saying the Bruins needed to focus on their defense, that their offense would come naturally. He acknowledged this is a fragile time for the team, that the Bruins could head one of two directions--go forward, or go home.

"Losing brings out the best in this team," he said. "When we got beat by Cal, we went on an eight-straight winning streak. Who knows, maybe things happen for a reason. Maybe this is the only way we can do something special is if we lose. So losing isn't going to even be in my mind anymore. It's going to be all about winning."

Then, for a fleeting moment, he allowed himself to do the unthinkable and let his mind wander beyond the Hofstra game.

"I'm tired of getting to the Sweet 16," he said. "I've been their twice already, the juniors have been there once, and hopefully that will carry us over."

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