UCLA's Kevon Looney vows to be more physical against Gonzaga

Gonzaga's Kyle Wiltjer took advantage of UCLA's Kevon Looney in their first meeting this season

One of these days, Kevon Looney reasoned, he was due for a good shot to the face. As a boy, Looney learned to scrap on the court at Stewart Elementary in Milwaukee, near his home.

He played against his brother's friends, eight years older, so to win rebounds and battle inside he had to be physical, play a little dirty.

"I elbowed a lot of people," Looney said. "I busted people's lips."

For two weeks now, Looney has been playing with a mask, the result of a facial fracture he received from the swinging arm of a USC player. The injury, Looney said, was "probably karma."

Looney surprised teammates by returning to play the following night against Arizona. He told them he had been hardened by his time on the Stewart Elementary court. Whenever his nose was bloodied, his brother, Kevin, would tell him shake it off, suck it up, get back in there.

If UCLA's medical team cleared him, Looney said, he was going to play.

In a South Regional semifinal game against Gonzaga on Friday, the Bruins will again rely on Looney's toughness. When the teams met in December at Pauley Pavilion, Gonzaga shot 58% and torched UCLA for 87 points, partially because Kyle Wiltjer, the Bulldogs' high-scoring forward, had his way with Looney.

The 6-foot-10 Wiltjer, a transfer from Kentucky, is one of the most gifted shooters and scorers left in the tournament. He takes 31.8% of the team's shots when he's playing, but remains efficient. His effective field-goal percentage is the second best among remaining players, behind only Duke's Jahlil Okafor. Only two players in the field have a lower turnover rate.

Looney, who is 6-9, again will be the primary defender on Wiltjer. And the matchup could be the key to the game.

In their first meeting, Wiltjer, who averages 17.1 points a game, scored 24 points and made nine of 13 shots. He is hard to defend, coaches say, because he can score from anywhere.

"Wiltjer is kind of the wild card because he is inside and out," UCLA assistant coach Ed Schilling said. "You break down in transition, he hits a three. You relax in terms of defending post position early, he's going to get you inside."

Looney called him the most prolific player he has seen this season.

"I don't think we've played anybody who can just go off like that," Looney said. "Not at my position."

Gonzaga is fourth in the nation in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com, because it can score in a variety of ways. Inside, 7-1 center Przemek Karnowski commands attention, and sixth man Domantas Sabonis is a natural scorer. The Bulldogs can space the floor effectively because their guards can make long three-pointers when left unguarded.

Wiltjer is the bridge.

"When we're moving the ball well," he said, "I don't think anybody really knows who's going to shoot it."

Schilling called Wiltjer and point guard Kevin Pangos the keys to the Gonzaga offense. To prepare, Looney has revisited film from the first Gonzaga game. Early on, when the Bulldogs typically pound the ball inside, Wiltjer established himself in the post. Looney was passive.

In the first half, Looney said, Wiltjer did whatever he wanted. So this time, Looney said he plans to be more physical, "to make him do what I want him to do."

After the injury, though, Looney was at first apprehensive. He was hesitant to bang inside or dive for a loose ball.

As he has played more with the mask, he said, he has grown "as comfortable as I'm going to get."

Teammates say Looney is a different defender than he was in December. A freshman, he has played 24 more college games, and his next loss could be his last at this level. Looney is projected as a lottery pick in the NBA draft should he choose to forgo his final three years of NCAA eligibility.

From an early age, Looney learned not to go out without a fight.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
81°