Sophomore slump, rookie sensation

By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins had 33 points and 14 rebounds, Washington’s John Wall racked up 22 assists to win the MVP award, and the rookies rallied to beat the sophomores 148-140 Friday night in the NBA All-Star weekend’s Rookie Challenge.

Led by the Kentucky connection of former college teammates Cousins and Wall, the newcomers won the lighthearted contest between the NBA’s best rookies and second-year players for the second straight year.

To the accompaniment of supersonic screams from thousands of children crammed into Staples Center’s lower bowl, both teams went through the usual array of alley-oops, breakaway jams and matador defense before the rookies pulled away in the final minutes. No. 1 draft pick Wall scored 12 points while surpassing Chris Paul’s 2007 Rookie Challenge record of 17 assists, repeatedly setting up his fellow rookies for acrobatic dunks and wide-open jumpers.

The erstwhile Wildcats switched roles for the rookies’ final basket with 12.8 seconds left, with Cousins lofting a pass off the backboard for an electric two-handed dunk by Wall, who hung on the rim for emphasis.

“Coach told us to run a couple of plays, but we knew our team was going to push the ball, and I know (Cousins) can finish,” Wall said.

All-Star Blake Griffin bounced back from an elbow to the nose to score 14 points for the rookies, but the Clippers’ high-flying dunk machine watched his team’s late surge from the bench despite thousands of children chanting, “We want Blake!”

Los Angeles native James Harden scored 30 points for the sophomores, and San Antonio’s DeJuan Blair had 28 points and 15 rebounds.

In the final minutes of a tight game, the kids began chanting insistently for Griffin — with rookies coach Kevin McHale egging them on. With a towel draped on his head, Griffin responded with a sheepish grin, but sat out the final 12:25.

Griffin already is booked for the busiest All-Star weekend in recent memory in his home arena. He’s the strong favorite in Saturday’s slam dunk contest, and he’ll play in Sunday’s main event as the first rookie All-Star in eight years.

The Rookie of the Year front-runner was hit in the nose by an accidental elbow from New York’s Landry Fields while playing defense in the opening minutes, but Griffin kept playing. He left the game wincing a few possessions later, but didn’t appear limited when he returned later.

Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans, last season’s MVP with 26 points for the rookies, sat out of the sophomores’ lineup with an injured left foot. Harden replaced him.

Updated February 18, 2011