COLLEGE BASKETBALL / NCAA MEN'S FINAL FOUR : Man of the Moments : Tyus Edney, the Bruins' Little Leader, Has Made the Biggest Plays of the Tournament

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His voice is barely more than a whisper, and the most flamboyant act of Tyus Edney's life was a moment of dramatic, frozen silence as the Oakland Coliseum Arena convulsed around him.

Loud? Edney does not need to be loud.

Although he sprints and dashes amid a world not usually kind to the meek, the fragile and the small, Edney, several inches under 6 feet and 150 pounds after dessert, does not need to be pitied or patronized.

And with the ball in his hands or his eyes locked on a dribbler, he never is. Never should be.

"Opponents fear him," four-year teammate Ed O'Bannon says. "He gets on the floor and guys are backing up and bringing the ball up real careful. . . . It's crazy, man. It's just a lot of fun having the same uniform as him.

"When he has the ball, especially now, you can see the confidence. It just glows. That's when the team can't do any wrong."

Through the four NCAA tournament victories that have put UCLA into the Final Four, which begins Saturday when UCLA plays Oklahoma State, Edney has ratcheted up his level of play to meet the moment. The other Bruins have followed.

Edney acknowledges he didn't know what was going to happen before he got the ball in his backcourt with 4.8 seconds left in the game and Missouri leading UCLA by a point in Boise, Ida., but it turned out rather well for UCLA.

And he says he was only trying to make something positive happen when he got the ball in his backcourt with 3.6 seconds left in the first half, leading Connecticut by four in Oakland. That one, too, turned out OK.

But after those moments had come and gone, Edney only rarely sounded excited, and his most common gesture, while others danced and roared, was a shrug.

"Yeah, that's how he is, but don't underestimate his confidence and his desire to be the best," assistant coach Lorenzo Romar says. "Don't be confused by his unassuming demeanor that he doesn't believe he's the best player, maybe not just point guard, best player in the country.

"He'll never tell you that, but he's a very confident guy."

Stoke Edney, Romar says, and the flame burns quietly. "Hey, Tyus, you know, this guy from Arizona, (Damon) Stoudamire, he's pretty good," Romar will say.

Edney answers: "Yeah, I know. I'll be all right. I'll hold my own."

Romar says: "And when he says that, all of a sudden you see him taking extra time after practice, shooting jumpers, and then when the game finally gets here . . . you see him all in the guy's face--he's intense, he's pushing the ball. It manifests whenever you give him a challenge.

" 'Tyus, you know, that guy's kind of physical. I don't know if you can body up with him.'

" 'Yeah? We'll see.'

"Watch out. When he says that. Watch out!"

*

Growing up in Long Beach, Hank Edney's son learned that, on the basketball floor, most things are better left unsaid. Explain with your play, Hank told his son, not with harsh words or ridiculous celebrations.

"I've always kind of emphasized to do his talking through his play," Hank says. "I think in his own life experience, he's learned if you start bragging, Mother Nature has a way of bringing you back down to earth real quick.

"You should really give credit, deflect credit, give it away, because it's better to give it to the other people than try to take it. Don't talk yourself up. Let other people do that. Let your play do that.

"Actually, Tyus does talk out on the floor. He gives a lot of directions on the floor. He doesn't do it loud.

"But when he talks, they listen."

And when he locked himself into that gunslinger's pose after the 25-footer against UConn, his teammates jumped for joy around him.

"I think it just had to do with being in the tournament and being fired up," Edney says of the stare. "I think this team plays well with emotion and when everybody's just doing stuff like that, having fun. That's what's coming out now."

Edney says he doesn't feel uncomfortable off the court with friends and family but concedes that on a basketball floor, with a defender to beat and the ball in his hands, he feels sharpest.

"On the court, it's definitely a great feeling," Edney says. "That's one place I want to be, on the court. I do feel free on the court.

"That's a good feeling out there, to know that you can use your speed, just beat a guy. To have that ability is great. It makes you feel like your speed can get through a lot, overcome a lot. I just try to use it as much as possible.

"I think it's a weapon and I try to use it as a weapon."

Since his high school days, even as he was dominating competition, his lack of height and slight frame caused concern. Arizona and California also recruited him, but he wasn't considered a national blue-chip player, and he committed to UCLA the night Jim Harrick made his home visit.

Hank Edney said any doubts he might have had about his son's chances in big-time college basketball were eased when Tyus played against NBA players in some summer league games before his freshman season.

"I realized actually that the bigger guys in the NBA were having problems with him, that it was to his advantage the bigger they got," Hank Edney says. "Though, I worry when he goes up for layups with those big guys.

"Still, we learned that his height really is an advantage, actually. He's able to move quicker, faster, shiftier and cover the whole court. He really intimidates the other players with his smallness, his quickness. . . . As long as they're putting that ball on the floor, he's got the advantage.

"He'd really rather play a taller guy than a smaller guy."

During this nationally televised run in the tournament, Edney has shut down UConn's Kevin Ollie, taken on Mississippi State center Erick Dampier and saved UCLA from elimination.

He has 33 assists in the four tournament games and only seven turnovers.

"I felt like I had that ability," he says. "In some games, I did it. I knew I had it in me. It was possible for me to be real effective in games.

"I guess that's something internally. It seems that despite what people say I can't do, I know in my heart I can."

Says his father: "I'm in wonderment like a lot of other people. I've always been. He's always exceeded what I've expected, he's always done that.

"So it kind of blows you away."

*

After helping UCLA make it to the West Regional final in Edney's freshman season, Tracy Murray left school a year early, setting the stage for a high-wire 1992-93 season. With little room for error, UCLA went 22-11, and most times, Edney ended up with the ball in his hands when the game was on the line, which was often.

"He made four comeback wins for us his sophomore year," Harrick says. "He was the comeback kid. Texas El Paso, we were down eight with three minutes to go and he hits the winning foul shot. Oregon State, he found the guy who hit the bucket. Washington State, we're down 23 at home and he hits a one-and-one to win at the buzzer.

"He does have ice water. He's sweet."

That chaotic season ended when UCLA outplayed but lost to Michigan in the second round of the tournament in a wild overtime, after Edney had turned the ball over with a chance to win it in regulation.

Edney's junior season followed suit. The team collapsed in the second half of it and Edney limped into the tournament with a bad back and bad vibes. A first-round exit against Tulsa, which Edney calls his most frustrating moment, was all but inevitable.

So he began 1994-95 with fire and focus. And finally figuring out how to harness his speed. "People say he's the fastest guard in the country?" Romar says. "There may be six or seven out there as fast as him. The difference is, they're not all under control, they don't all know how to run a team, they can't all shoot the basketball, they can't all finish plays without running people over.

"If you're driving through slow-moving traffic and you keep it in fourth gear and keep the accelerator down, you're going to have a wreck. If you keep it in first gear, everybody's going to be honking their horn.

"But if, as you see the lane open, you shift gears, you downshift, you get it back in the next gear, you're going to be a real effective driver. You're going to get to where you need to go. Tyus has learned how to shift gears. I think that's the biggest key in his development. He's not just 100 m.p.h.

"He's always been a good basketball player, and he's been developing piece by piece. But I think the last month, the light has come on."

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