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UCLA Hits Sweet Spot

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Matt Barnes draped his arm around Jason Kapono, blanketing his shoulders as completely as UCLA covered sharpshooter Steve Logan and smothered the cacophony of criticism 3,000 miles west.

There were 1.6 seconds left in the second overtime, it was clear the Bruins were bound for their fifth Sweet 16 in six years, and the two veterans spoke the same words in unison.

“We’re supposed to win games like this,” they said.

Great minds or not, exultant basketball players apparently think alike.

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It took a collective effort for the Bruins to muster the thrilling 105-101 double-overtime upset of Cincinnati on Sunday and move on to San Jose, where they will face No. 12-seeded Missouri on Thursday.

After combining for only two points in a first half dominated by top-seeded Cincinnati, Barnes and Kapono scored 34 in the last 20 minutes. Barnes also had a career-high 11 assists and three steals.

Center Dan Gadzuric performed with raptor-like intensity, scoring a career-high 26 points and grabbing 13 rebounds amid the board-crashing Bearcats, who had 20 offensive rebounds but only seven after halftime.

Often fumble-fingered freshmen point guards Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Walcott were as sure-handed as maternity nurses, never turning over the ball. They also shared defensive duties on Logan, holding the two-time Conference USA player of the year to six-for-18 shooting.

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Guard Billy Knight scored 12 points and made the key play in the second overtime, turning an offensive rebound into a three-point play for a 97-93 lead with 1:27 left.

And freshman Dijon Thompson added another stirring chapter to his late-season coming-of-age story, making a jump shot in the lane with 14 seconds left.

Like author Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys,” the Bruins arrived here seeking identity and inspiration. They quickly became mysteries of Pittsburgh, perplexing even Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins, who could not understand why the Bruins were seeded No. 8.

“That was as talented a No. 8 as there’s been in the history of the tournament,” he said.

Apparently he didn’t see UCLA’s recent losses to California or Arizona State. But those pathetic efforts, like nearly all the clunkers of Coach Steve Lavin’s six seasons, were rendered meaningless by a nationally televised display of heart and determination at Mellon Arena.

UCLA (21-11) trailed by 13 points eight minutes into the game, by 10 at halftime and by nine with nine minutes left in regulation. Sparked by Barnes’ two three-point baskets in a five-second span, the Bruins caught the Bearcats, 71-71, four minutes later and finished regulation tied, 80-80.

The first overtime ended 90-90 and UCLA led the second overtime from the moment Barnes fed Kapono for a basket on the first possession. It was the Bruins’ first double-overtime NCAA tournament game since their loss to North Carolina State in the 1974 semifinals.

“Guts and grit did it,” Kapono said. “We stayed upbeat the whole time. Coach Lavin stayed up and the whole team did. Somehow we knew we’d win.”

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Lavin and Mike Krzyzewski of Duke are the only coaches to lead their teams to the Sweet 16 five times in the last six seasons. Mentioning Lavin in the same sentence as the esteemed Coach K might strike some as sacrilegious, but the UCLA coach’s relentless rah-rah approach was never more effective.

While Huggins screamed at his players on their way to their seats during timeouts, Lavin led cheers. Maybe Huggins’ words made more sense, maybe his instructions more technically correct, but one team felt the freedom to trust its instincts and perform confidently down the stretch.

That team was not Cincinnati (31-4).

“Maybe we’ll get the luck in one of these tournaments,” said Huggins, whose team fell in the second round for the fifth time in six seasons.

Cincinnati was a victim of its own dominant regular season. Only four Bearcat victories were by margins of fewer than 10 points and the players seemed to tighten as the clock wound down.

Guard Leonard Stokes was sensational most of the game, scoring 39 points, but he panicked with 33 seconds left in the second overtime, launching an off-balance three-point shot that missed, then fouling Barnes seconds after he grabbed the rebound.

Barnes made one foul shot and UCLA led, 100-93. Even three-point baskets in the last 10 seconds by Logan and Field Williams couldn’t erase that deficit.

The Bruins, in contrast, drew strength from earlier narrow victories over UC Irvine, USC and Arizona, as well as wisdom from heartbreaking losses to Villanova, Arizona State and Oregon. Eight of their previous nine games were decided by fewer than nine points, making this finish almost de rigueur.

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“We beat each other up all year in the Pac-10 and that made us tournament-tested,” Barnes said. “The wars we had every Thursday and Saturday prepared us for this.”

Barnes and Kapono each had to operate with four fouls in crunch time. Barnes was called for his fourth with the score 85-85 in the first overtime and Kapono’s came much earlier, with 11:45 left in regulation.

The two veterans had plenty of energy in the extra periods because they each played only eight minutes in the first half, Kapono because of foul trouble and Barnes because he missed all five of his shots and had three turnovers.

Cincinnati appeared in control, thanks to Stokes’ strokes and a 25-15 rebound advantage in the first half. But Barnes and Kapono each scored early in the second half, signaling that UCLA would not go down without a fight.

“It was a rough first half,” Barnes said. “When Jason and I were struggling early, Dan and our young guys kept us in it.

“We talked about it at halftime. For us to make a run we knew the two of us had to get it going in the second half.”

And beyond, through two overtime periods, straight into another Sweet 16.

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The Big Difference

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