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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Twice As Sweet

In the Round of 16 Together for the First Time, UCLA and USC Head to Philadelphia

Bruins Use Defense to Choke Off Aggies

March 18, 2001|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Burn the video. Shred the scouting reports. Never mind that debacle at Washington a week ago.

UCLA has more than a full-court press; it can play stifling half-court defense too, something it didn't do much during the regular season.

The Bruins came through in that department Saturday with a trip to the Sweet 16 hanging in the balance and No. 1 Duke lurking in the shadows.

UCLA put the clamps on Utah State, 75-50, leaving the Aggies waiting for a defensive collapse that never came.

"We thought if we could have cut the lead in half by the five-minute mark they might have choked," Utah State point guard Bernard Rock said. "Coach [Stew Morrill] was saying, 'Just hang in tough. They're going to choke.' "

Never happened. Even when their shots weren't falling, the Bruins never gave an inch at the other end and pulled away down the stretch.

"Our defense has been the difference for us in this tournament," said point guard Earl Watson, whose team will face Duke Thursday in Philadelphia. "After we lost at Washington [in the regular-season finale], we have emphasized defense. We spent the whole practice after that loss--the whole three hours--on defense. We know we can score, but now we know we have to focus on defense."

That focus was sharp as a pin in the first half, when the Bruins burst the Aggies' bubble by holding them without a basket for 13:38--a mind-blowing 20 possessions.

But the Aggies trailed by only 11 at halftime and pared that to five with 10:30 remaining. They had momentum--as well as the majority of the Greensboro Coliseum crowd--on their side.

The Bruins might have gotten weak-kneed at that point. They were out of sync on offense, and had been since the beginning. Jason Kapono and Matt Barnes were benched for the first three minutes for missing study hall Friday, and Watson was the only player who had found a groove.

When Utah State crept closer, the Bruins found their salvation in defense. In the moments after the Aggies cut the deficit to five, UCLA got steals by Watson and Billy Knight--both resulting in easy layups--and blocks by center Dan Gadzuric and Barnes. In a flash, the Bruins had a double-digit lead they would not surrender.

"The full-court press now has a little brother--an aggressive half-court defense that we're finding extremely valuable this time of year," assistant coach Michael Holton said. "In the past, teams were breaking the press and getting good looks at the basket. Now, our half-court defense is cleaning up the shop."

It was the second consecutive game the defense has come through for the Bruins, who defeated Hofstra, 61-48, in the first round. Not since the 1981-82 season has UCLA held opponents to 50 points or fewer in back-to-back games.

Morrill said he was pleased with the tempo of the game, which moved at a crawl compared to the blinding speed of Duke's 94-81 victory over Missouri.

"I think we lulled them to sleep a little," he said. "When the score is 30-19 at halftime, neither team is on fire."

Thanks in large part to UCLA's defense, the Aggies shot 18.2% (six of 33) in the first half, and 28.3% (17 of 60) for the game.

Eventually, the Bruins found their offensive rhythm. Kapono scored 19; Watson and Gadzuric added 16 each. UCLA dominated the boards, 47-31.

"This team is a group of old souls," Coach Steve Lavin said after reaching the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five years. "Losing to Washington was a wake-up call that snapped us back to reality. After that stinger at the end of the season, I wasn't worried about us looking past Utah State."

The temptation was there. The thought of facing Duke never left the minds of UCLA players.

"That's what you go to a big school for, to play the Dukes, the North Carolinas, the Arizonas," said Barnes, who came to UCLA the season after the Bruins last played Duke, a 120-84 loss at Durham, N.C. "Earl played Duke. It's going to be a great opportunity. Any time you see Duke in your bracket, of course you're going to look ahead."

Watson, who had two points in that blowout loss to the Blue Devils his freshman season, said he doesn't feel queasy about facing them again.

"No butterflies at all," he said. "That's one of the best things about me. I don't get butterflies at all. I might get over-excited and ready to play. But that's when you really drain yourself and lose."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Dancin' With Lavin

How the Bruins have fared in the NCAA tournament under Steve Lavin:

1997 (Seeded second in West)

* First round--d. No. 15 Charleston Southern, 109-75

* Second round--d. No. 7 Xavier, 96-83

* Regional semifinal--d. No. 6 Iowa State, 74-73 (OT)

* Regional final--lost to No. 1 Minnesota, 80-72

1998 (Seeded sixth in South)

* First round--d. No. 11 Miami, 65-62

* Second round--d. No. 3 Michigan 85-82

* Regional semifinal--lost to No. 2 Kentucky, 94-68

1999 (Seeded fifth in South)

* First round--lost to No. 12 Detroit Mercy, 56-53

2000 (Seeded sixth in Midwest)

* First round--d. No. 11 Ball State, 65-57

* Second round--d. No. 3 Maryland, 105-70

* Regional semifinal--lost to No. 2 Iowa State, 80-56

2001 (Seeded fourth in East)

* First round--d. No. 13 Hofstra, 61-48

* Second round--d. No. 12 Utah State, 75-50

OVERALL

* 9-4: Overall record

* 2-3: Record vs. teams seeded above them

* 7-1: Record vs. teams seeded below them

*

UP NEXT

Jason Williams' 31 points help lift Duke over Missouri, 94-81. The Blue Devils play the Bruins on Thursday. S4

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