Patience is no virtue for Cowboys NCAA TOURNAMENT NCAA FINAL FOUR

April 02, 1995|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,Sun Columnist

SEATTLE -- It was the game Oklahoma State wanted all along, the one Cowboys coach Eddie Sutton drew on his blackboard. A walk-it-up pace. Twenty-five points from Bryant "Big Country" Reeves. A complete shutdown of UCLA's helter-skelter fast break.

Tactically, the opener of yesterday's national semifinal doubleheader was a perfect game for stuck-in-the-mud Oklahoma State. A disaster for run 'n' shoot UCLA.

But a strange thing happened on the floor of the Kingdome. Slow and steady lost the race this time.

Oklahoma State succeeded only in discovering yet another way UCLA couldn't be beaten.

And the basketball nation continued to discover the true talent and resourcefulness of this Bruins team, winner of 18 straight games now.

"People underestimate our defense and our half-court offense," forward Ed O'Bannon said after the Bruins' 74-61 win. "That's fine. I hope they underestimate it one more time, on Monday night."

The book on these Bruins before yesterday was that they were at home in an open-court game and uncomfortable when the pace was slow. If that's true, the Bruins were uncomfortable all day yesterday. Sutton's Cowboys masterfully controlled the pace with strong rebounding and quick defense.

"A lot of the things I thought we needed to do, we did," Sutton said.

But, clearly, the book on the Bruins is missing a chapter or two. They can win when they're walking, too. Their record when they score fewer than 80 points is a fine 8-1. And their defense, which doesn't get much attention, was the difference yesterday.

For a long time, UCLA had no answer for Reeves, who scored 18 points in the first half. George "Big Foreign Country" Zidek was too slow, and freshman J. R. Henderson was too narrow. Thus, although the Bruins jumped out to leads of nine and seven points in the first 15 minutes, Oklahoma State was able to tie the score at halftime and take the lead early in the second half.

That's when UCLA Jim Harrick made the tactical move that won the game, giving up on his beloved man-to-man defense to play a 2-3 zone. The idea was to sandwich Reeves, with O'Bannon in front of him and Zidek behind him.

The plan worked beautifully. Reeves, tiring noticeably as the game wore on, scored only seven points in the second half. On a night when guard Randy Rutherford was unable to take up the slack, missing nine of 13 shots, the Cowboys just didn't have enough offense to keep up.

"To hold them to just 24 points in the second half is a wonderful accomplishment," Harrick said.

"Their zone defense did a real good job," Reeves said. "Having O'Bannon in front of me made it hard for my teammates to get me the ball. And I'm sitting here pretty tired right now, so I'd say they accomplished what they wanted."

Said Zidek: "He got tired. But then, he played 40 minutes and I missed most of the first half [with foul trouble] so it's not a surprise."

Yet even without points from Reeves, the tenacious Cowboys refused to disappear. Down eight with 13 minutes to play, they scored nine straight points to take the lead. Then, down five with six minutes left, they rallied to within one point of the lead with 2:35 to go. Rutherford attempted a three-pointer that would have tied the score with 1:53 left. He shot an air ball.

"We ran a play and I had a shot, and I just missed it," Rutherford said.

He just missed it, and the Bruins just had too many weapons in the end, too many places to which they could turn when they needed points. Point guard Tyus Edney took over down the stretch, scoring eight points in the last 3:36, but the Bruins also got critical points at the end from no less than five other players.

That's the way it works with this team, a team Sutton called "the best in the country" before yesterday's game. Few observers east of Sacramento believed that was the case for most of the season, due mostly to the Bruins' recent history of failing as a high seed in the NCAA tournament. But the evidence is piling up.

Thirty wins in 32 games. A spot in the NCAA championship game for the first time since 1980.

The difference between this UCLA team and those that failed recently is obvious: three senior starters. Harrick has all but given over this team to O'Bannon, Edney and Zidek, who are constantly exhorting their teammates and directing them on and off the court. It's a team that plays cool and smart.

"They have a lot of wonderful athletes, and they're certainly well-coached," Sutton said. "We had to play our best game of the year to win."

They played the perfect tactical game, it turned out.

And still lost.

So much for planning.

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