Two rebounds grab spotlight

West Regional: Once buried under the weight of great expectations, UCLA and Missouri have risen up to challenge for a Final Four spot.

NCAA Tournament

March 21, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

SAN JOSE, CALIF. — SAN JOSE, Calif.- When any team with a seed lower than No. 6 makes it past the second round of the NCAA tournament, the tendency is to start fitting it for a glass slipper.

But that's not so in the case of No. 8 seed UCLA and No. 12 Missouri, two teams that have shed the early burdens of high expectation to surprise those who had given up on them when the Big Dance began last weekend.

"We're hot. We're dangerous. But we're not Cinderella," said injured UCLA player Rico Hines, who could be talking about his team as well as the Missouri team the Bruins face tonight at about 10:25 EST in the West Regional semifinals.

UCLA (21-11) entered the tournament having lost nine of its previous 17 games. Missouri (23-11) barely finished above .500 in the Big 12 Conference.

Yet, the Bruins served notice during the first round by beating Mississippi by 22 points, then upset top-seeded Cincinnati in two overtimes. Missouri - quite possibly the last team selected for the field - ran roughshod over No. 5 Miami and No. 4 Ohio State.

"We're a team that deserves to be where we are," said Missouri star forward Kareem Rush. "I don't think of us as underachievers. People put us on that pedestal that I don't think we deserved to be on."

Rush helped put the Tigers on that pedestal last season in the tournament's second round with a standout performance (29 points, eight rebounds) against eventual national champion Duke delivered with a splint on his shooting hand.

Just about everyone of consequence returned, Missouri was to get a 7-foot junior college transfer, and the program was in line for its first Big 12 title since 1994.

The only problem, according to Tigers coach Quin Snyder, was that everyone believed the hype, especially once the team started the season 9-0.

Snyder said he and his staff saw flaws, but with a No. 2 national ranking, "there wasn't the external pressure to change." Three straight losses followed the season-opening hot streak. And criticism followed, a lot of it pointed toward Snyder and Rush, particularly when the Tigers suffered a road loss to a weak Iowa State team.

The Iowa State game prompted self-examination and a refocusing on fundamentals similar to what might be found in preseason practices.

Missouri has won only 12 of its past 19 games, but the team that barely scraped its way into the tournament is far better than the earlier version that was tagged as a national title contender. Lead scorers Rush and guard Clarence Gilbert finally have gotten help from players like Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding. Moreover, the Tigers can win games when they're not necessarily shooting well.

"We stuck together and guys kept believing that we were going to turn the season around," Rush said. "Eventually, it did turn around for us."

In contrast, it's your typical daffy bunch at UCLA. On the same Pauley Pavilion floor, the Bruins beat Kansas by 10 and lost to Arizona State (two days after beating Arizona).

As much as coach Steve Lavin would like to ridicule the characterization of his teams - "We're nine lives, we're horoscope, we're biorhythm, Jekyll and Hyde" - the pattern in Westwood each year is distressingly similar to the last.

Introduce high expectations. Watch UCLA fall short of them so that Lavin's job security is in question. Watch the Bruins win at least two games in the NCAA tournament so it can be done all over again.

Remember the team that routed Maryland by 35 points in Minneapolis two years ago. That UCLA group started 4-8 in the Pac-10 Conference. Last season featured a loss to Cal-State Northridge. There's always an outrage.

"Obviously we've been through some tough stretches and haven't played our best basketball throughout, but it always seems that in crunch time we play well," forward Jason Kapono said. "Hopefully, this streak can continue through Thursday."

Like Missouri, the Bruins lost to Duke (in the East Regional semifinals), had key talent like Kapono and center Dan Gadzuric returning, along with well-hyped newcomers like Cedric Bozeman and Andre Patterson.

Bozeman, who was supposed to play the point, suffered a knee injury before the season, starting the team's troubles at that position. Until the Cincinnati game, point guard play had in fact been something of an Achilles' heel for UCLA, which was trying to replace Earl Watson.

"It's tough to be a point guard at UCLA when you're a freshman," Lavin said. "When you're six weeks behind and you're having to come into places like Mac Court [at Oregon], it's difficult."

The performance that the team had been waiting for all season came Sunday in the Cincinnati game, when Bozeman and fellow freshman point guard Ryan Walcott did not commit a turnover in 50 minutes of play.

"Against a well-coached Cincinnati Bearcat team that plays pretty good defense," Lavin said, "the poise they demonstrated in that game was pretty remarkable for young guards."

UCLA also got 26 points and 13 rebounds from the often-maligned Gadzuric, as well as 17 points and eight rebounds from Matt Barnes, who had been slumping.

At this point, according to Hines - who won't play tonight because of a knee injury - what the Bruins have is a disappointing season to be redeemed.

"We have the talent to beat any team here and in the field of 16," Hines said. "We're gelling right now, and I think Missouri is, too."

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