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Bill Plaschke

A Method to His Madness at Midnight

March 12, 2006|Bill Plaschke

They hugged here, they howled here, the UCLA basketball team filled Staples Center with a thunderclap of an eight-clap that shook the seats here.

But the game wasn't won here. It was won down the street.

It wasn't won on a famous hardwood. It was won in a hotel ballroom.

It was wasn't won by streaking athletes. It was won by sleepy-eyed kids.

To fully understand the Bruins' 71-52 victory over California in the Pacific 10 Conference tournament championship game Saturday, one must travel about a mile north and 15 hours back.

Late Friday night, after watching Cal survive a semifinal with a double-overtime victory over Oregon on television, the Bruins were summoned from their hotel beds.

It was about 11:45, and nutty professor Ben Howland had just scheduled a class.

"I think that's the latest I've ever practiced," Lorenzo Mata said with a grin.

They took a basketball into a ballroom and started running plays.

Cal's plays.

They then went into another meeting room to watch film.

Leon Powe film.

Despite the darkness, no one dared close his eyes.

"Coach kept yelling, so we couldn't sleep," Bruin guard Cedric Bozeman said.

And despite their weariness, everybody listened.

"What Coach does, it works," Mata said.

By the time their practice finished, it was nearly 1 a.m. By the time some players such as Bozeman had received injury treatment, it was 2:30 a.m.

By the time they took the court Saturday afternoon, they were smiling and laughing as if none of that mattered.

Smiling and laughing like people who knew.

Said Arron Afflalo: "We knew so many of Cal's plays, we could run their plays."

Said Bozeman: "Every little tug on the shirt, we knew. Every little pat on the head, we knew. We knew a lot of what they were going to do."

And they showed it, dominating Cal as they dominated everyone in the tournament, winning a game that wasn't even as close as the lopsided score, ending the most impressive three-day run since this tournament's renewal in 2002.

Their rewards were caps, T-shirts, and a probable No. 3 seeding by an NCAA tournament committee that should send them to open in San Diego.

Howland, of course, showed up at the postgame news conference with directions.

"A bus ride down the 405, pick up the 5 to San Diego," he said.

Does this guy plan everything?

On Saturday, it seemed that he did, from the way his team stopped tournament MVP Powe to where he put his bottled water on the scorer's table next to the Bruin bench.

Howland would put the bottle in the middle of a giant roll of tape that was on the table for specifically that purpose. I'm not kidding you.

"Coach thinks of everything," point guard Jordan Farmar said.

And so his team has become the trendiest sports story in town by acting like throwbacks, playing with resolve, resilience and Ripley-like statistics.

My three favorite from Saturday:

1) UCLA took only one more shot than Cal, yet scored 19 more points.

2) Only one Cal player had an assist.

3) Powe, who scored 41 points in double overtime the previous night, didn't score in the last 16 minutes against the Bruins.

The latter stat was caused by the inside forces who hold the key to UCLA's March success -- Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Alfred Aboya and Mata, who took turns pounding on the 6-foot-8 Powe, again and again, double-teaming him when he turned to the basket, boxing him out

"I would beat the first man, but the next man was just a few steps behind. And the next man after that is just a few steps behind him," said Powe, who scored 17 points and made barely one-third of his shots.

Some fans unfurled a Cameroon flag in honor of Mbah a Moute and Aboya. Some gave Mata a standing ovation for his recent return from a broken leg.

Sweet 16? As crazy as it sounds, you may have to start thinking sweeter.

"If your team plays good defense, you can go far in the tournament," Cal Coach Ben Braun said, later adding, "[UCLA] believes in their defense. They haven't had too many nights off on the defensive end."

Nights off? During this tournament they haven't had too many minutes off, holding three opponents to under 40% shooting combined while not allowing any of them to break 60 points.

Said Mbah a Moute: "It's a commitment."

Said Farmar: "It's the first thing that will get you benched."

It started Saturday when the Bruins forced five turnovers in Cal's first seven possessions.

After Cal closed the gap when UCLA's big shoulders were benched for foul trouble, the Bruins pulled away in the second half with the same sort of defense, typified by a play with 12 minutes 26 seconds left and fans back on their feet.

Powe drove; Mata wouldn't move; Powe lost the ball; Farmar picked it up and drove the length of the court for a layup to give UCLA an eight-point lead.

"I could tell he was frustrated, he started saying stuff," Mata said. "Stuff I can't say here."

More important was the stuff UCLA players heard their coaches recite the night before, the night they got into Powe's head, into Cal's playbook, into the middle of March on a march.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at bill.plaschke@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.

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