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Bruins Almost Get Caught in a Zone

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For a UCLA team hoping to rocket its way into March, this wasn’t about favored sites or seedings or fancy NCAA tournament symbolism.

Sluggish after the early stages Thursday night and stunningly tied in the later parts of the game, matched against an Oregon State team that had not won a road game in nine tries this season, this was about survival.

With a couple of clutch baskets and clingy defensive stands, 10th-ranked UCLA finally picked its way past Oregon State, 81-69, to win its sixth in a row and maintain its Pacific 10 Conference lead before a restless Pauley Pavilion crowd of 11,048.

A victory Saturday plus a loss by California at Stanford clinches UCLA’s third consecutive conference title.

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But on the heels of their scintillating victory over Duke and the dramatic run back into national prominence, the Bruins (18-7, 12-3) did not deny that this performance, so close to the tournament, raised troubling questions.

“You can’t win big in college basketball if you have letdowns,” Coach Steve Lavin said. “You have to be a buzz saw, just keep going right through teams. The last five games, I thought we played at that buzz-saw level.

“And tonight, we had a dip.”

After racing out to an almost effortless 17-point lead, 31-14, with eight minutes left in the first half, the Bruins started backpedaling and the Beavers took fast advantage.

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Oregon State (7-19, 3-13) used a 16-9 run to cut the halftime lead to 40-30, and, throwing a zone defense at the Bruins’ stagnant offense, kept on going until it was tied, 54-54, with 7:19 remaining in the game.

“It’s hard to explain--we always do this,” Bruin forward J.R. Henderson said. “We tend to think, we’re a better team, we can not box anybody out and still get the rebound, or we can be lax on defense. But it doesn’t always work that way.”

Said Charles O’Bannon, who had a team-high nine rebounds and 16 points: “I thought we came out with a lot of energy, we were up 17 or 18, one possession away from putting the game away, then we had a mental letdown.

“I thought we started to play a little selfish at the start of the second half--we weren’t playing under control, guys were taking shots out of the offense quicker than usual.”

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That’s when Beaver freshman Corey Benjamin almost took over the game, scoring 20 of his game-high 26 points in the second half, including several breakaway dunks and layups after UCLA turnovers.

In all, Oregon State made 27 of its 50 shots--54%, the best total for a Bruin opponent since Stanford’s 48-point victory in January.

It took a giant game from Cameron Dollar (17 points, six assists and three steals) to lead UCLA out of the darkness--even though Dollar said he was hoping to get the other Bruins involved in the offense.

“I think we played hard,” Dollar said, “it’s just that we played against a team that came out like a bunch of terrorists who don’t really have a lot to lose.

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“I’m not disappointed. It wasn’t a great, power-packed game, but it wasn’t anything that bad.”

It didn’t start poorly for UCLA. With Jelani McCoy whacking away anything close to the basket (three first-half blocks, and he finished with four) and Toby Bailey finding shooting space, UCLA was in command.

Bailey scored 10 of the Bruins’ first 23 points, and ended up with a team-high 20 points and five assists.

In the second half, though, the Bruins were stifled by Oregon State’s zone defense, reminiscent of their struggles against Princeton in last season’s first-round NCAA loss.

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“The zone shocked us a little bit,” Henderson said. “They got us standing around. But I’m kind of glad we had this game. We’ve got a few more games, and we can learn from this.

“I know everyone on this team really learned something from this game.”

Said O’Bannon: “I thought we were progressing in the right direction--and this is just a small slip back. I’m not concerned too much. We’ll talk about it, and we’ll be fine.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Pac-10 Race

Conf.

*--*

Team W UCLA 12 3 California 10 5 Arizona 10 5 USC 10 5 Stanford 9 6 Washington 9 6 Oregon 7 9 Washington State 4 11 Oregon State 3 13 Arizona State 2 13

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*--*

Overall

*--*

Team W L UCLA 18 7 California 19 7 Arizona 18 7 USC 15 9 Stanford 17 7 Washington 16 8 Oregon 16 9 Washington State 12 15 Oregon State 7 18 Arizona State 10 17

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*--*

INSIDE

TROJANS STAY TOUGH

USC kept its NCAA tournament hopes alive with a 72-69 victory over Oregon at the Sports Arena. C4

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