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Diane Pucin

It's Just Another Case of Poise Over Potential

January 25, 2002|Diane Pucin

It was a simple gesture, a discreet palm out, a slow-down-and-think sign given by point guard Julius Barnes to his Stanford teammates.

After trailing UCLA by eight points, the Cardinal had taken a three-point lead. As the team was running willy-nilly up the court, jubilant in having forced another UCLA miss, confident that it could do whatever it wanted, Barnes made his teammates slow down, look around and run a play. And score. A lay-up. By Teyo Johnson, who is more prominent as a football Cardinal than a basketball Cardinal.

Such a gesture doesn't often come from a UCLA player or coach.

Playing basketball for UCLA means you never know what is happening next. Not from game to game, not from moment to moment, not from offense to defense or defense to offense. Not at Pauley Pavilion, not in Maui or Tucson or anywhere else. The Bruins lost Thursday night to Stanford, 86-76. It was not a surprise, but it should have been.

Take Duke off the table and it can be argued that UCLA has the most talented starting five in the country. Who's better? Kansas or Kentucky? No. Maryland might be close but no better. You watch the Bruins, you marvel at Jason Kapono's quick release of his shot, at Matt Barnes' great strength and control of his body, at Dan Gadzuric's long arms, live legs, smooth moves, and at Cedric Bozeman's speed and size. It all doesn't make sense.

Why Pepperdine? How come Ball State? Got a clue about USC? Have an answer for Arizona? And now this. No team had ever beaten UCLA five times in a row at Pauley Pavilion. Until now.

Julius Barnes makes a wide-open three-point basket to give Stanford a 51-48 lead and the situation cries out for an explanation.

The Cardinal has a four-game winning streak at Pauley and the team is playing as if it owns the place. UCLA students had camped out for three days, some of them. On TV they were calling Pauley Lavin-land for Coach Steve Lavin. And that's the problem.

Being in Lavin-land means never having to say you have a clue.

There's a new and truly awful game show called "The Chair." The hapless contestants are strapped into a chair and John McEnroe is shouting at them. The contestant must keep his heartbeat below a certain rate or lose money. UCLA fans could never be in "The Chair" during a Bruin game. Heart rates fluctuate from nanosecond to nanosecond.

Gadzuric stands alone, tries to dunk and misses the shot. Misses badly. On the next Bruin possession, Gadzuric flies high and smashes the ball through the basket, a highlight dunk. On the ensuing Stanford possession, Gadzuric commits a thoughtless foul near the three-point line, where he shouldn't be fouling. It's his fourth and there are still 14 minutes left. How could he? What was he thinking?

We are thinking that Gadzuric's third foul had been equally ill-conceived, an angry shove in the back to Stanford center Curtis Borchardt with 2:06 left in the first half. It came after Kapono had missed an even more ill-conceived 28-foot three-point shot that came with 25 seconds left on the 35-second shot clock and which made the fans go, in unison, "Huh?" Someone needed to put that palm out and tell the Bruins to slow down.

So now Gadzuric sits. Matt Barnes steals the ball. Races for an uncontested and mind-altering dunk. Next UCLA possession, a pass goes to Barnes for an alley-oop dunk. Barnes, nearly unguarded, misses the slam.

UCLA should be ahead by 20 instead of 56-53 with 11:35 to play.

This is what makes being a UCLA fan so, so ... what? Exciting? Nauseating? Exhilarating? Exhausting? It is what makes being a UCLA player so, so ... what? Confusing? Confounding? Is it fun for the Bruins to be so unpredictable? Is it exciting for them to be so apocalyptic?

Did we say UCLA should be ahead by 20? Never mind. With 5:50 left, Stanford freshman Josh Childress gives the Cardinal a 65-60 lead. After Childress's basket, Bozeman misses two free throws. And Stanford's Casey Jacobsen makes a 28-foot three-point basket off a screen and in the flow of the offense.

It's the difference between saying "Huh?" and "Wow!" It's the difference between having a 68-60 lead as an underdog and looking at an eight-point deficit and a five-game home losing streak to a Pacific 10 Conference rival.

It's the difference between Kapono making three-point baskets early and Jacobsen making them late, when the game is on the line and they put Stanford ahead, 75-63, with only 3:31 left.

With 1:50 left, Jacobsen and Barnes hug each other at midcourt. The Cardinal led, 80-68. The UCLA fans were walking out. Confused? Angry? Frustrated? Or thrilled? After all, this can only mean good things are to come. That's life in Lavin-land.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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