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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Second Effort Gets Job Done

March 16, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The coaching search is over. It ended Thursday in a press-row lap, along some slick midcourt hardwood, on the back of Billy Knight's shorts.

It ended, as it began, with noise and desperation and defiance.

It ended where these things should end, not in some administrator's office, but on some 20-year-old's fingers, and in his shoes, and under his shirt.

Steve Lavin is going to be UCLA's basketball coach next season.

You only thought that was already official.

It is now.

The dotted line was filled in before 14,235 witnesses at Greensboro Coliseum during a 61-48 comeback victory over Hofstra in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The signature bore the hand of players who, midway through the second half, turned a potentially devastating loss into a delightful exercise in flying and floor burns.

Then credited the boss.

"All that talk about Lavin leaving, that's all over now," Earl Watson said with a tired smile. "We showed again today how we are a reflection of him."

Both the bad, and the good, in what amounted to a 40-minute Lavin timeline.

The Bruins started as if they had just been introduced to one another and the sport. They threw floor-length passes out of bounds, put up hurried, off-balance shots, disposed of all evidence of defense.

At halftime, they trailed by four. That sound wasn't a horn, it was laughter from Jim Harrick, watching his first UCLA game in five years.

"First game of the tournament, everybody was all jittery, all over the place," said Watson, who wasn't.

With 13 minutes remaining, the Bruins still trailed the outmanned Pride, 43-37, and you know what?

That could have been it. If they'd lost a game like this, to a team that was much lower seeded and far less skilled, Lavin could have been fired next week.

Didn't matter that he was Pac-10 coach of the year. Didn't matter that he'd won at least 21 games for his fifth consecutive year.

Certainly didn't matter that he has, like, a jillion years left on his magically expanding contract.

Remember your Bruin history, and we're not talking Bill Walton.

Jim Harrick was fired months after a first-round loss. Larry Farmer disappeared a season after a first-round loss.

Larry Brown departed after a first-round loss. Walt Hazzard was gone after a first-round Pac-10 tournament loss.

Lavin had already been fortunate enough to survive one first-round loss, and that was before Pete Dalis put Rick Pitino on speed dial.

Didn't even matter that the administration had given Lavin a recounted, dimpled-chad vote of confidence a couple of weeks ago.

With 13 minutes remaining Wednesday and some kid named Apodaca making a three-pointer, the coach's job was on the line.

Then his team was on the floor. And on the scorer's table. And in the seats. And in the face of Apodaca and every other wiry, tattooed New York kid who came running off the bench.

Watson, who could easily have been co-Pac-10 coach of the year, was shouting, "Heart! Heart! Heart!"

Lavin, worked on the head, adjusting the zone defense to put more pressure on the shooters.

"I didn't do that against Detroit Mercy, and it cost us," said Lavin, referring to their first-round loss two springs ago. "It was a lesson learned."

For the other guys, it was a price paid.

Playing their best defense in years, the Bruins held the Pride without a basket in the final nine minutes.

On one steal, Watson sailed into press row while grabbing the ball and calling timeout.

"I had a great seat, but I don't want to be a sportswriter," said the wise young man.

On two occasions, Knight jumped in front of the stunned Hofstra guards to draw charging fouls.

"Sometimes I get accused of flopping," he said. "But these guys didn't say anything."

Then, with 6:13 remaining and the Bruins leading, 48-45, Dan Gadzuric joined the flying legion by running into the scorer's table on an attempted steal.

It was his fourth foul. Yet Lavin did not take him out.

There's that Detroit Mercy page again.

"Another thing I learned from that game," Lavin said. "I took out Baron Davis after his fourth foul, and we blew a lead. This time, I decided to go for the kill."

That cliche has rarely been used around these parts. The Bruins traditionally don't outfight teams, they outrun them.

Not for nine minutes Thursday.

Gadzuric rumbled through the middle in a foul mood but with no fouls as the Bruins outscored the Pride, 13-3, the rest of the way.

"We're not a soft team anymore," Matt Barnes said. "We come out with a hard edge. Every night."

That edge will be tested again Saturday in the second round by a disciplined Utah State team, which showed its fearlessness in an up-the-gut comeback victory over Ohio State.

The Bruins will have to be smart. They will have to make adjustments. They will have to do exactly what they did Thursday.

They will have to listen to Lavin.

Imagine that.

"Every year here, he has learned, he has gotten better and better," said Knight, who has done the same. "If people give him a chance, he could be here 20 years, be like Dean Smith."

Bruin fans would settle for Tubby Smith, but you get the picture.

*

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

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