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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | BILL PLASCHKE

Cross-Town Rivalry Gets All Crossed Up

March 23, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

PHILADELPHIA — For the gutty little football school, the final insult occurred at halftime.

When the members of the basketball school packed up their things and walked out.

Time was, players from USC would pay to watch players from UCLA.

On Thursday, they wouldn't even watch them for free.

And so the Bruins' carnival ride of a season ended, perhaps unfairly but certainly unavoidably, in the dunking booth.

They figured to be dropped by top-ranked Duke in the East Regional semifinals, and so they were, 76-63.

It was nonetheless wet.

And those stares from the Trojans, who earlier defeated Kentucky, were nonetheless cold.

"We had a chance to play USC to go to the Final Four . . . and that's all been lost," Ryan Bailey said, shaking his head for all of Los Angeles.

There should be no shame here, this being that rare Bruin team that did not underachieve.

This was Steve Lavin's best season, Earl Watson's NBA season, Matt Barnes' can't-wait-till-next-season season.

If only those guys from across the street didn't still have a season.

Shame, no. Sadness, a little. Envy, plenty.

We'll let the hyperbole battle it out this summer on the courts at Venice.

For now, here's guessing when it comes to watching USC playing Duke for the regional championship Saturday, UCLA won't even make it until tipoff.

"I don't care what USC did . . . I'm not watching," Barnes said after being outscored, 24-9, by Shane Battier. "I'm done with basketball for a while."

For Duke, things are only getting started. The reason the Blue Devils won Thursday contains about as much mystery as Mike Krzyzewski's haircut.

They have three national high school players of the year. They have as many Mr. Basketballs as basketballs.

They clearly have better players. They should win.

The Bruins were close, but not really. They pulled with three points with 14:54 left in the second half, and Jason Williams scored, like, a jillion consecutive points.

"No more open looks for that guy," yelled assistant Steve Spencer to Billy Knight.

What about the three-guys-sticking-fingers-in-his-ear looks?

"There was times I had a hand right in his face and he still scored," Knight said of the 34-point effort by the Duke guard. "He's amazing."

The Bruins closed the gap to six points with 9:01 left. Then Williams pulled off about a gazillion consecutive steals.

If you like, you can give Battier college basketball's philosopher-of-the-year award.

But the player of the year is Williams.

UCLA has nobody to match him. UCLA has nobody to match Battier or Chris Duhon, either.

The best description of the Bruin loss came in a shout from behind the Bruin bench.

"Put in Tyus Edney!"

Four Sweet 16 trips in five years is a record that puts Lavin's Bruins among the game's best during that time. But they need more magic to reach the level that matters most.

They need the sort of player who can take over a game as Williams did Thursday . . . or command a moment the way Edney did in 1995.

They have lost their last three Sweet 16 games by an average of 21 points. It is a wall into which even some of the nation's best recruiting classes haven't made a dent.

"It's about being mentally tough," said Barnes, who will stick around next year to preach this some more. "We have all the talent in the world. We just need to be mentally stronger for that next step."

USC is a perfect example. Kentucky can serve as a perfect witness.

"We were just a little nervous tonight," said shooter Knight, who was four for 13. "We should have calmed down a little more. I don't know why we didn't."

Could the fact that before the game, on a little locker room TV with the sound down, they were watching USC win?

"Nah," Knight said. "I mean, I still don't think they'll talk that much."

Really, Bruin fans, don't get your programs in a twist.

This bit about the football school was a joke.

(Sort of).

Your team still beat USC twice in the regular season.

(A long time ago).

Your coach has still beaten their coach nine times in 10 meetings.

(As if Henry Bibby cares right now).

Playing Duke is still much harder than playing Kentucky.

(We'll never know, now, will we?).

Enough, enough.

There were no losers from Los Angeles here Thursday, only two proud teams that poured all their energy and elbow skin on the floor.

One team won. One team lost.

We'll let them spend the next, oh, 20 years telling you which was which.

*

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

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