NCAA BK

BURLISON: Bruins have a good Knight against the Trojans

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Frank Burlison

 
   
 

LOS ANGELES

Ten minutes after the game Wednesday night, UCLA coach Steve Lavin was bouncing around Pauley Pavilion, slapping hands and hugging anyone within distance of a Billy Knight 3-point jumper of him. We can safely assume Knight got his share of Lavin affection in the locker room moments before. After all, Knight had only hit a jump shot against USC that might prove to be the turning point of the season for the Bruins. Knight's flick of the left wrist from 21 feet away on the right wing, courtesy of one of the most unlikely assists you'll ever see by Dan Gadzuric, might not ever achieve Tyus Edney-length-of-the-floor-dribble-and-flip-it-up-at-the-buzzer-to-beat-Missouri-and-propel-the-Bruins-to-the-1995-national-championship status in UCLA lore.
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But the shot did give the Bruins a 67-65 victory over a USC team that was within a Knight miss on the attempt of leaving Pauley with a sweep of its rival for the first time in 10 years. It was a night when both squads, both locked in the six-team struggle that is maybe the tightest Pacific-10 Conference race ever, took turns playing well enough to win by 10-plus points. And they also took turns playing with the kind of misbegotten shot selection (USC being the guilty party) or carelessness with the basketball (sloppy handing and passing almost did the Bruins in before intermission) that could have led to double-figure-point defeats. Did either really have the look of a Pac-10 championship team? Well . . . They certainly didn't, not in the tradition of what we've come to expect from the likes of Stanford or Arizona, the programs that have won or shared each conference title since 1998. But let's face it. This is a Pac-10 season unlike any we've seen before. Five of the conference's teams are nationally ranked, and another couple (Cal and Arizona State) don't exactly quake in fear of playing Arizona, Oregon, Stanford, USC and UCLA. It's going to be a heck of a Pac-10 tournament on March 7-9 at the Los Angeles Staples Center, regardless of who wins the regular season championship. But all the regular-season contenders — including Oregon, atop the standings with a 9-2 mark but facing a whopper of a Thursday/Saturday road trip at Stanford and Cal — have fairly obvious shortcomings. The Bruins' and Trojans' were on full display Wednesday, as were their considerable strengths. UCLA, now 8-4, is a veritable merry-go-round in the backcourt, with freshman playmaker Cedric Bozeman still a ways from being able to be the guy with the ball in his hands in all crunch situations. But, with Dan Gadzuric, Matt Barnes and Jason Kapono, the Bruins also have the best frontcourt starters — and Knight's a pretty darn good "open" shooter, too, as USC was painfully reminded Wednesday night. USC, also 8-4, has the most explosive and hard-to-guard post player in the conference in Sam Clancy and is relentless under the backboards and on defense. But the Trojans are also quick to fire up jump shots one or two passes into a possession, when a bit more patience would result in a much more palatable — and open — attempt. After taking a nine-point lead with just under two minutes to play in the first half, USC went about 15 minutes when a bunch of guys who weren't named Clancy (24 points) were taking quick attempts without the muscular senior at least touching the ball once. Ultimately, though, the Trojans overcame an 11-point deficit to punch their way back in front with a couple of Brandon Granville free throws with 38 seconds to go. UCLA couldn't get the ball to the guy it wanted taking a winning shot attempt (Kapono) but after a scramble for a loose ball along the baseline, the 6-foot-10 Gadzuric — who just as easily could have bounced the ball off his knee, or hands, out of bounds — somehow managed to fling the ball to Knight. Better lucky than good? There wasn't anything lucky about Knight's shot — you try making a 21-footer, no matter how wide open, with 12,000 people watching and a whole lot on the line. That the ball ended up in his hands, though, was, at the very least, fortuitous. And, in this Pac-10 race, every little bit helps. Senior writer Frank Burlison can be reached at his e-mail address, fburlison@foxsports.com.

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