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First Things First for UCLA

Pauley fans getting excited as Bruins improve to 5-0 in the Pac-10 with a 66-58 victory over Arizona State.

January 16, 2004|Steve Henson | Times Staff Writer

No need for a weather report. Just look inside.

The doom-and-gloom storm clouds that shrouded Pauley Pavilion last season vanished Thursday night in a 66-58 UCLA victory over Arizona State marked by smart and sturdy Bruin basketball from start to finish.

The overflow student section at floor level -- nonexistent a year ago -- was appropriately boisterous and mildly profane. Longtime season-ticket holders were on their feet along with the rest of the 9,327 in attendance. Voices boomed support from the rafters.

Overwhelmingly appreciative are UCLA players who endured torrents of boos last season when the team went 10-19 and the coach, Steve Lavin, became an object of scorn.

"I feel the fans' presence," UCLA guard Dijon Thompson said. "It's a different atmosphere and we welcome it."

The Bruins have earned the accolades. UCLA is 9-3 and improved to 5-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference for the first time since 1995-96. They are in first, half a game ahead of Stanford.

It is an opportune time to welcome No. 7 Arizona on Saturday. Yes, the same Wildcats who thoroughly humiliated the Bruins by 35 points at Pauley Pavilion last season.

Forecast: Powder blue fervor of the highest order.

"We can put 5-0 in a box right now and focus on Arizona," Thompson said. "They are always tough."

Surprisingly, so too is UCLA. A ho-hum roster inherited by Coach Ben Howland has for three weeks looked every bit an NCAA tournament contender.

The Bruins held Arizona State to 35.2% shooting and restricted Sun Devil center Ike Diogu, the Pac-10's most consistent scorer, to 15 points on three-for-14 shooting.

UCLA won the rebound battle in a 39-24 landslide and picked up floor burns along the way, taking charges and wrestling for jump balls.

"That was a very physical contest," Howland said. "The bottom line is that the things we are trying to do prevailed."

Senior forward T.J. Cummings continued his strong play, shrugging off a metal plate protecting his sprained big toe to score 21 points and take 12 rebounds, notching his second double-double in a row.

Thompson shrugged off a recent shooting slump, making seven of 12 for 19 points. Point guard Cedric Bozeman found him on the perimeter several times with sharp passes in transition.

Bozeman also made five consecutive free throws in the final 2:38, the last two when Arizona State (6-7, 0-4) pulled to within three points behind the slashing layups of guard Jason Braxton, who scored nine points in the last four minutes.

Bruin center Ryan Hollins displayed newfound toughness in 28 minutes off the bench, and when Diogu fouled out with 4:29 to play, he was the last big man standing.

Cummings, at 6 feet 9, is a big man too, but he was lying on his back, having ripped the ball from Diogu, who responded by committing his fifth foul. Cummings landed with a thud surpassed in volume only by the ovation that followed.

"We are showing that we are competing every game," Cummings said. "I'm so proud of our guys. Nobody gets rattled."

The Sun Devils appeared shaken when Diogu missed two open shots under the basket in the last minute of the first half, leaving the floor trailing, 34-25.

The Bruins had little trouble beating the Sun Devil press and found open shots once they got up the floor. UCLA shot 53.8% in the half, alternately raining from the perimeter and slashing through the lane, and held Arizona State to 29.2%. Diogu made one of nine from the field.

Cummings scored 11 of UCLA's first 15 points and was assertive on the boards. Trevor Ariza took over from there, making a nifty finger roll over a defender with 7:30 left in the half and sinking a three-point basket with 2:50 left.

Everything Howland did worked. He had four reserves--Hollins, forward Josiah Johnson and guards Ryan Walcott and Janou Rubin -- on the floor with Ariza when the Bruins broke a 15-15 tie on follow shots by Hollins and Ariza. Arizona State was never closer than three the rest of the game.

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