More clouds converge in stormy UCLA season Injuries to two guards toughen Kentucky test

South Regional

March 20, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The 12-hour, three-airplane, one emergency landing trip here from Los Angeles fit in perfectly with the rest of UCLA's often tumultuous season. So did the freak injury reserve guard Rico Hines suffered at the team's dinner after arriving at 2 a.m. yesterday.

The stormy weather outside Tropicana Field -- the building formerly known as the ThunderDome -- provided the soggy backdrop for the sixth-seeded Bruins as they prepared for tonight's second NCAA South Regional semifinal against second-seeded Kentucky (31-4).

"It's been an El Nino kind of season," said second-year coach Steve Lavin.

This latest batch of problems for UCLA (24-8) actually began during the first half of Sunday's 85-82 second-round victory over Michigan at the Georgia Dome when freshman point guard Baron Davis injured a knee after throwing down a dunk.

On Monday, it was announced that Davis had suffered a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament. Lavin had considered moving Hines into the starting lineup until the freshman's run-in with a butter knife, which resulted in five stitches and possible nerve damage to his left index finger.

"Our team is an example of Murphy's Law," said senior guard Toby Bailey. "We're the epitome of that, whatever can go wrong, does. If you look it up in the dictionary, there's probably a picture of our team next to the word."

Which team picture you might see is up for debate. Though Lavin was kidding yesterday when he said five have been taken, actually there have been two: one with Jelani McCoy and one after the senior center had been suspended for the second time this season, this time ending his UCLA career.

The change for tonight's game is reminiscent of the one the Bruins were forced to make prior to the 1995 championship game against Arkansas when senior point guard Tyus Edney was injured in the semifinals and Cameron Dollar, then a sophomore, stepped in to help UCLA upset the defending national champion.

"In 1995, we had a real smooth sailing year until [Edney's injury]," said Lavin, then an assistant under former Bruins coach Jim Harrick. "That was the first kind of adversity we had. This group of seniors has faced it all season. It's helped with our maturity. The players are not shocked when it happens."

They weren't surprised when the plane they were taking out of Los Angeles had a problem with its radio, forcing them to get on another plane. Nor were they surprised when the second plane lost its radar and was forced to land in Atlanta because the weather there was clear.

"My concern was, 'Who's my point guard at the front of the plane?' " Lavin said jokingly. "I hoped that he didn't have an ACL injury when he tried to land."

Then came the injury to Hines.

"I was sitting next to him and I thought he was joking when he ran out of the room," said Bailey. "But then he came back and his hand was covered with blood."

It left a team already depleted by McCoy's suspension and the injury to Davis even thinner. The Bruins are down to six players who've seen more than a handful of minutes, three of whom are freshmen. One of them, Earl Watson, will play most of the time at point guard.

"It's going to be a huge responsibility," Watson said yesterday. "Every play is going to be important. Even if Baron was here, every play would be important."

The adversity has helped take the pressure off the Bruins. They are not expected to beat Kentucky, a deep and talented team coming into the Sweet 16 on a roll, just as the team three years ago was not expected to beat the Razorbacks.

Then a freshman, now a senior, J. R. Henderson sees the similarity.

"At the start of the tournament, they were timid and tentative," said Henderson. "After all that's happened to us, our freshmen are playing loose, just like we did. They're playing as if they're in a pickup game."

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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