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Looking to close a wound

UCLA seeks payback against Arizona State for last month's loss.

February 12, 2009|David Wharton

Less than a month gone by and, already, the memory fades.

"Seems like a long time ago," Michael Roll said. "I wasn't even thinking about it till you guys brought it up."

Maybe the UCLA swingman and his teammates would rather not dwell on their loss to Arizona State at Pauley Pavilion last month.

A game in which they fumbled away an 11-point lead. A game in which they staggered the last 8 minutes 14 seconds of regulation without a point before losing in overtime.

"For whatever reason," center Alfred Aboya said, "we couldn't buy a basket."

Actually, the 11th-ranked Bruins think they know exactly what happened, and tonight they have a chance for equal measures of redemption and revenge against Arizona State at Tempe, Ariz.

There is more at stake than wounded pride.

A victory over the 18th-ranked Sun Devils would keep UCLA atop the Pacific 10 Conference standings. This game also serves as an acid test for a team that seems to have turned a corner, winning four games in a row.

"Everybody saw how they dismantled Notre Dame on Saturday," Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek said. "It seemed like they could have named the score."

The last time these Pac-10 contenders met, the Bruins pulled ahead and somehow gave up trying to penetrate Arizona State's matchup zone. Camping on the outskirts, launching perimeter shots, they went cold.

"We're going to learn from this game," senior Josh Shipp said.

The lesson took a while to sink in, UCLA splitting two games against the Washington schools before making a shift, bringing the defensive heat.

"Just trying to speed the game up," Aboya said. "Creating a lot of turnovers."

The guards began putting more pressure on opposing ballhandlers -- USC's Daniel Hackett ran the offense with his back to the basket last week -- while Aboya asserted himself inside, denying the post feed.

In each of their subsequent four victories, the Bruins forced double-digit turnovers, which translated into 24 points a game. By comparison, they scored 10 points off turnovers against Arizona State.

There has been another crucial difference. Working in the half-court offense, they have attacked the basket far more aggressively, either shooting or drawing fouls.

"Definitely just trying to get in there and get contact," guard Jrue Holiday said after a win over California. "All the good teams get to the free-throw line."

Which raises another point. Living and dying on the perimeter, UCLA took eight free throws against Arizona State. The Sun Devils made 14 of 17.

The question is, can the Bruins decipher a Sun Devils defense that ranks second in the Pac-10, surrendering 58.4 points a game?

Coach Ben Howland talked about his team's "willingness to try to get the ball inside either with penetrating dribbles or passes trying to collapse that zone."

At the other end of the court, can they deal with a Sun Devils offense that features the conference's leading scorer, James Harden, and a patient scheme? The key is to harass the ballhandler and speed up the process, forcing errant passes.

"It will be a test for us to do a better job defensively with our ball pressure," Howland said.

A test and a chance to obliterate bad memories.

Though the players say they put last month's defeat behind them, this week has brought questions from the media and various other reminders.

"The time has come," Holiday said. "We need to redeem ourselves and prove ourselves."

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david.wharton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

UCLA tonight

AT ARIZONA STATE

Time: 6 PST.

On the air: TV: ESPN; Radio: 570.

Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Tempe, Ariz.

Records: UCLA 19-4, 8-2; Arizona State 18-5, 7-4.

Update: Can 11th-ranked UCLA avoid being swept by 18th-ranked Arizona State for the first time since the dismal 2002-03 season that got Steve Lavin fired? Signs point to yes. The Bruins have won their previous four games in Tempe and are on a roll, averaging 85.8 points and giving up 63.0 over the last two weeks. Sun Devils forward Jeff Pendergraph helped his team past Oregon State in a low-scoring game last weekend and leads the nation in field-goal percentage at 67.6%.

-- David Wharton

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