UCLA cruises by off-target Utah State

22 consecutive misses doom Aggies, put Bruins in East semifinals, 75-50

March 18, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- In other years, UCLA might have been looking ahead to a potential matchup against Duke in next week's East Regional semifinals before the Bruins even stepped on the Greensboro Coliseum floor to play Utah State in yesterday's second-round NCAA tournament game.

Too bad for the Aggies that UCLA didn't.

Playing a suffocating defense that forced a tournament-record 22 straight misses in the first half, the fourth-seeded Bruins built an 11-point lead at halftime and cruised to an easy 75-50 victory over 12th-seeded Utah State.

UCLA (23-8) is in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in coach Steve Lavin's five seasons.

"This season has been as rewarding as any since I've been coaching because of the group of young people I had the good fortune to work with," said Lavin, whose job security was in question throughout the season. "If I'm going to struggle, this is a group I want to struggle with. Their maturity, character and togetherness makes it incredible."

Not that the Bruins didn't have one of their typical off-court distractions before the game. Starters Jason Kapono and Matt Barnes were benched for missing study hall Friday night, and sat out the first five minutes while Utah State built a 9-8 lead.

Their insertion into the lineup started a 13-0 run during a 10-minute stretch in which the Aggies failed to score. Leading 30-19 at halftime, the Bruins allowed Utah State (28-6) to climb to 34-30 early in the second before steadily building their lead.

"At the beginning of the game, I thought we could play with UCLA," said Utah State point guard Bernard Rock, who orchestrated his team's upset of fifth-seeded Ohio State on Thursday. "In the first half, we missed shots we could make."

The Aggies could compete against a UCLA lineup that included forward T. J. Cummings and guard Ryan Bailey, but not one with Kapono and Barnes.

Kapono finished with 19 points, including five of seven three-point tries. The Bruins also got 16 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots from 6-foot-11 center Dan Gadzuric. Shawn Daniels led Utah State with 11 points.

"It's tough to win a basketball game when you miss 22 shots in a row," said Utah State coach Stew Morrill, whose Aggies shot a dismal 17 of 60 (28%) overall. "It was one of those nights when we couldn't make any shots, and you've got to give UCLA credit. We're very proud of this season and our five seniors. We'll forget this one as fast as we can."

So will the Bruins, who have a chance to knock off the top seed in the East come Thursday night.

"Last year after we beat Maryland in the second round, we were celebrating," said point guard Earl Watson, recalling a 35-point blowout of the Terps. "This year we're a lot more focused, and that's on the fact that we have to play Duke."

Lavin hopes that the team that showed up the past three days is the same one that appears in Philadelphia, not the one that lost its regular-season finale to Washington, 96-94.

"That was a wake-up call, a slap in the face, smelling salts, whatever you want to call it," he said.

Said Watson: "Whenever we have adversity, we seem to win six or eight games in a row."

Two down and four to go, but the one that looms on the immediate horizon is certainly UCLA's biggest obstacle.

"We beat Stanford and Stanford beat Duke," said forward Billy Knight.

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