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Diane Pucin

Lavin Seems to Be Asleep at the Wheel

January 09, 2003|Diane Pucin

Someday Jason Kapono may tell his grandchildren how he was the greatest three-point shooter in the history of college basketball. For a game, a glorious game when he scored 44 points and the world was his basket.

And then he'll tell them how, the very next game, a part-time forward named Josiah Johnson, who was more adept at fouling than shooting, got as many three-point shots (one) as Kapono did in the first half.

The Pac-10's two leading scorers, UCLA's Kapono and USC's Desmon Farmer, played against each other Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion. Farmer's coach, Henry Bibby, got his offensive star shots, good shots, lots of shots, the right shots. Farmer scored 25 points, made five of 10 three-pointers, and Bibby had his first win as a coach at Pauley, where he had won so many games as a UCLA player.

"My players said they wanted to do this for me," a beaming Bibby said after USC's 80-75 win. "But this wasn't for me. It was for the university, for the fans and for the players."

But it was because of Bibby, because his team withstood a 16-2 UCLA run in the first half and didn't get flustered, because Farmer shot an early airball but kept getting, and taking, his shots.

Kapono's coach, Steve Lavin, didn't do the same for his offensive star. By the second half, Kapono's rhythm was missing after he only got five shots in the first half.

He shot an airball, he hit all iron, no net, he ran back and forth along the baseline. That's not where Kapono should be. He should be floating around the three-point line while teammates set screens, set double screens, set them early, set them often. Kapono is a shooter to be ridden hard, he is the best offensive weapon UCLA has. He is a senior. It's not a secret.

With about six minutes left, though, Kapono was setting the screen. For Dijon Thompson. Who couldn't take advantage. Kapono finished with 10 points. He got 15 shots. Lavin gave all credit to USC's defense. He was being too modest. Lavin should get some of the credit too. For not having figured out, after three full seasons, how to get Kapono shots.

Kapono is not quick to a spot, his foot speed will never win him races. But when he gets into a shooting rhythm, it is a beautiful thing. And what a coach should be able to do is figure out how to make use of that talent.

Bibby, on the other hand, knows what he has in Farmer. Bibby has an emotional, scatter-brained, hot-cold-hot-hot-hot scorer who will let a ball go through his hands when his team is clinging to a four-point lead with 3:43 left because he's already thinking of shooting the three-pointer. So you let him keep shooting even if you want to strangle him too.

We don't often see Bibby smile during basketball season. Not at practice, not during games, not after losses, not after wins.

He was smiling Wednesday.

His evolving team, "showed a lot of poise," Bibby said. It "gained confidence throughout the game." It "played defense," it "showed toughness." It "wasn't as fragile as some previous USC teams," Bibby said.

These things made him proud.

Meanwhile, Lavin was mentioning those same wonderful things about USC. About its toughness, its defensive pressure, its ability to get second and third shots, its willingness to be patient and fling bodies after loose balls and rebounds, its determination to make plays, ugly plays, pretty plays, big and small plays.

"We have to clean up those deficiencies," Lavin said of his team's inability to do the same. "It's not a big mystery."

But apparently it is. It must be a mystery to the coaching staff or why would UCLA have spent a five-minute stretch in the first half running the floor, causing turnovers, unfurling fast breaks, turning a 21-17 deficit into a 33-23 lead? And then stopping all that?

Partly because USC was tough, as Bibby said. But partly because the Bruins don't seem to know why they play well. It just seems to happen. Then it stops.

At any given moment, who knows what UCLA will do? Kapono sets a screen for Thompson? Guard Cedric Bozeman sits down with six minutes to go, just after a couple of nice layups? Andre Patterson jacks up an awkward three in the last two minutes when USC made an effort to give the game back?

The Bruins unraveled. Their fans were marching out, heads down, fists clenched. So maybe they didn't see the inbounds turnover or the travel soon after UCLA had made their deficit only four, 74-70. Maybe they were outside already when Trojan fans were yelling "We are ... SC. We are ... SC," as Kapono made his first three-pointer of the second half with 18.1 seconds left and the game over.

"Fire Lavin," one man yelled. "You've got no plays," another screamed.

The listed attendance was 12,736, short of a sellout on USC night. Coach John Wooden left with six minutes to go. Good for him. What he missed wasn't worth seeing.

*

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

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