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Young UCLA Has More Ups Than Downs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems that building the new Bruin basketball team might involve a few bricks.

The seven sophomores and five freshmen who dominate this season’s UCLA squad are bound to take bad shots. They are likely to make foolish passes and otherwise act like underclassmen.

But, in their season opener Thursday, they showed just enough flashes of brilliance to outlast a determined Santa Clara, 89-76, before a crowd of 8,532 at Pauley Pavilion.

The Bruins did it without point guard Baron Davis, still a week or so away from returning from off-season knee surgery. They did it with four freshmen--Jerome Moiso, JaRon Rush, Dan Gadzuric and Matt Barnes--on the floor at tipoff.

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“We’re starting four freshmen in Pauley Pavilion,” Coach Steve Lavin said. “You expect there to be ups and downs.”

It was Rush, scoring a team-high 19 points, and Moiso, with 16, who made a string of flashy jump shots and dunks to ignite a late run that put the game away.

“Exciting plays,” Rush said. “That’s what gets me to settle down. That’s when I get comfortable.”

And that helped the Bruins break a streak of three consecutive season-opening losses, a string that began in 1995 with a 78-69 loss in the Maui Invitational to Santa Clara.

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Where previous seasons began with North Carolina or a dangerous Tulsa squad, this fall brings a nonconference schedule carefully prepared for a young team looking to gain experience before Pacific 10 play begins.

Sure, UCLA will face a tough game or two in the Puerto Rico Shootout next week. And Oklahoma State looms down the road at the Wooden Classic. But the rest of the menu is filled with the likes of Delaware State, American and Loyola Marymount, teams expected to be little more than hors d’oeuvres for the No. 11-ranked Bruins.

Count Santa Clara in with that bunch.

The Broncos had high hopes this season with a largely veteran team that went 18-10.

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Those hopes were dashed when all-West Coast Conference guard Brian Jones, the team’s leader, dislocated his right kneecap while playing a summer league game. The Broncos came into Pauley Pavilion having already lost, 56-51, to Pacific.

Still, they stayed close to a UCLA team that looked its age, shooting too quickly on offense, leaving opponents open under the basket on defense. The 6-10 Moiso, for one, admitted to being a little spooked.

“I was kind of nervous at the beginning,” he said. “I was kind of out of the game.”

It took one of the old-timers, sophomore Earl Watson, to jump-start the Bruins in the first half. With Santa Clara holding a one-point lead, Watson put back a missed shot, then came back down the floor and scored on a reverse layup.

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The young guys quickly got into the act, Rush making a three-point basket and Gadzuric scoring off an offensive rebound. A 14-0 run gave UCLA a 22-9 lead.

Just as quickly, however, Moiso threw up an airball and another freshman, Ray Young, missed a wide-open dunk on his first shot in a college game.

With Lavin substituting at breakneck pace--everyone on the Bruin bench played at some point in the first 20 minutes--Santa Clara crawled back. Freshman guard Delano D’Oyen, replacing the injured Jones, made a three-point shot from the top of the key. Guard Nathan Fast made another three and the Bruins led at the half, 44-36.

“When you play that many people, you know it’s going to be hard for some of them to get a rhythm,” Lavin said. “I just told them, ‘You can’t get down. It’s a long season.’ ”

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Things didn’t change much at the start of the second half as Fast, who scored a game-high 25 points, made a few more shots.

But with 10 minutes remaining, the Bruins began to hit their stride. Moiso made a graceful turnaround jump shot. Barnes scored off an alley-oop pass from Watson.

And Rush began to show why he might turn out to be the jewel of this recruiting class.

In the space of a few minutes, the 6-6 forward from Kansas City drove the baseline for a dunk. He rose above the pack for rebounds. He outran defenders on the break.

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“When you get the crowd behind you, you feel like you’re on top of the world,” he said. “No one can stop you.”

Finally the youth movement was in gear. Santa Clara, which had worked so hard on defense all night, did not have the offensive firepower to respond and UCLA opened a 10-point lead it would not relinquish.

Watson finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. Barnes had nine points and eight rebounds. The Bruins shot 45.5% from the floor, but that was enough.

“We kind of expected it to be tough because this was our first time playing together,” Rush said. “At least we got the win.”

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