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NCAA MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT | THE FINAL FOUR

Mata's rough and ready

UCLA center does it all on defensive end, a key task against bigger big men

March 29, 2007|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

Think of the big men who have played for the UCLA basketball team.

Think of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his delicate footwork, his elegant hook shot and his stoic expression. Remember Bill Walton and those exuberant outlet passes, the form-fitting follow-through on his jump shot. Consider Don MacLean, still UCLA's leading scorer, a big man with a silky smooth jump shot.

And now there is Lorenzo Mata.

He is ... not smooth.

His trademark play: taking a charge. Among his proudest moments this season: When he vomited against Weber State in the first round of the NCAA tournament and came right back in the game.

"I was tough, man," the center says.

When UCLA plays Florida on Saturday evening at the Georgia Dome in an NCAA tournament semifinal, Mata, at 6-foot-9, will be asked to keep in check Florida's 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah and 6-10 Al Horford -- whom UCLA Coach Ben Howland calls "the best pair of big men in the country."

If UCLA wins, Mata would then match up against 7-2 Roy Hibbert of Georgetown or Greg Oden, Ohio State's 7-foot freshman All-American who might be the No. 1 pick of the next NBA draft.

But here's a word of warning from Walton.

"Of the 10 John Wooden championship teams, four of them came when the Bruin front line came in as the underdog -- in 1964, 1965, 1970 and 1975," Walton says. "Against Duke, Michigan, Jacksonville, Kentucky. Those teams all had more celebrated front lines.

"Remember Sidney Wicks (6-8) dismantling Artis Gilmore (7-2)? Remember Fred Slaughter in 1964? Fred was 6-5 and Duke had a 6-10 guy, Jay Buckley, at center.

"The Bruins are a great defensive team and you don't have a great defensive team without having an anchor on the backline. And that comes from Mata's willingness to do all the little things that solidify the Bruins defense. All the double teams, the pressure on the perimeter, none of that would work without the effort of Mata. That's what makes basketball such a great game: What the Bruins are facing this weekend -- how to beat the big guys."

Rico Cabrera Jr., a Mata family friend and Lorenzo's youth coach, came to appreciate Mata's toughness four years ago at the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions at the Dean Dome in Chapel Hill, N.C. The team had Mata, Bryce Taylor (Oregon), Jared Dudley (Boston College), Jordan Farmar (UCLA/Lakers) and Mario Chalmers (Kansas).

But the Atlanta-based team Cabrera's squad met in the title game had Dwight Howard, who is 6-10, entered the NBA directly out of high school and is averaging 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Orlando Magic, Josh Smith, who is 6-9 and averaging 15 points for the Atlanta Hawks, and Randolph Morris, Kentucky's 6-11 center.

"Lorenzo was our only post player, no one knew who he was and he absolutely neutralized that front line," Cabrera says. "That was a turning point for Lorenzo."

Mata is not from a background that would be considered traditional for a UCLA basketball player. His high school, South Gate, is not a traditional Los Angeles sports power.

His mother, Reina, was born in Mexico and she and Lorenzo have always been a two-person team.

Only a few college recruiters appreciated his toughness. The biggest names to come watch him were UCLA's Ben Howland and Texas Tech's Bob Knight. Mata's athletic background had been mostly of the soccer variety until he reached the eighth grade.

Mata refers to himself as a "rough and tumble" player. What Knight and Howland noticed was that he had the legs of a weight lifter and a fearless attitude.

"He's had two broken legs, a broken nose, poked in the eye, so much stuff," Howland says of Mata's toughness. "He loves to take a charge. The kid is great."

He is also the most decorated Bruin. If others have tattoos, none are as prominent as Mata's. Through an interpreter, Reina said, "I was surprised when Lorenzo got the first tattoo. Surprised as a mother. I didn't know he'd do that."

The first was of an Aztec Warrior -- a tribute to his culture and, Mata says, his spirit. The second, of praying hands, he had done last year on his leg -- the broken leg that cost him a month of play and left him with an appreciation of his mother's care.

"She did everything for me," Mata says. "The hands are my mom's. The prayer is for thanks."

On the Internet, where opposing fans can be mean-spirited, Mata's looks have been disparaged. Cabrera says Mata laughs when he is called unattractive or worse. He likes to point to a photo that is used as a signature for a poster on a UCLA fan board. It is of Mata sprawled on a lounge chair, surrounded by bikini-clad beauties, at the Maui hotel where UCLA stayed last fall during the Maui Invitational.

"Lorenzo is one of the shyest but coolest guys I've ever known," Cabrera says. "He's got his Sidekick, his trademark hats. He's got some jewelry, some baggy pants. Lorenzo thinks he's at the forefront of all the social trends. If someone tries to make a mockery of him, he brushes it off. That's his trademark too."

Back on the basketball court, Mata's game can still appear workmanlike, but his teammates say he is becoming more confident on offense.

"He shoots his hook shot left- and right-handed," Bruins forward Josh Shipp says. "I think the whole team feels comfortable if he has the ball on offense."

Mata averages 6.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and leads the team with 42 blocked shots. He is quick enough to sprint out and give point guards a quick bump when opposition offenses start to set up a possession, and his tree-trunk legs keep him from being pushed out of the block by bigger centers.

"One maxim that applies so perfectly for Mata this weekend is that basketball is not only a game of size or strength," Walton says. "It is also about skill, timing, position.

"It's not how big you are, but how big you play. It's not how high you jump, but when you jump. I love the way Mata is playing right now."

*

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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