UCLA Basketball Sees Value in Recruit's Grit

Times Staff Writer

Hard-working, gritty players defined his basketball teams at Pittsburgh and Northern Arizona, and at least one member of Ben Howland's first UCLA recruiting class indicates the coach is looking to shape the Bruins in the same mold.

Lorenzo Mata, a 6-9 shot blocker from South Gate High, prides himself on defense and is a blueprint of the type of player UCLA fans should get used to seeing.

He started high school far behind his peers both on the court and in the classroom, but he has put in extra time to catch up. Mata's work ethic endeared him to Howland and paid off when he signed a national letter of intent to accept a scholarship from UCLA on Wednesday, the first day of the official NCAA early signing period for sports other than football.

Mata meshes with Howland's affinity for tough, defensive-minded teams, so while flashy point guard Jordan Farmar and high-scorers such as Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp are considered the crown jewels of this Bruin recruiting class, observers say the hard-nosed post player from blue-collar South Gate might best define Bruin basketball in the Howland era.

"This kid is exactly the type of kid Ben Howland goes after," said Bob Gibbons, a North Carolina-based national recruiting expert. "He's the ultimate overachiever and because of that, he epitomizes the UCLA coach."

Mata, 17, had no choice but to work hard in order to sign with UCLA. He entered South Gate as a freshman with little direction in the classroom and no experience in organized basketball.

He played soccer as a youth, and his only experience with basketball came from the pickup games he played at his junior high. Still, as a 6-foot-5 freshman with athletic ability acquired from soccer, Mata tried basketball at the urging of South Gate Coach Sal Serrano.

"He couldn't dribble, he couldn't shoot and he didn't know much about the game," Serrano said. "But he had coordination, he had athleticism and he was a good listener. When we demonstrated something to him, he picked it up right away."

At first, though, Mata didn't fully commit himself. Unwilling to work as hard as his coach wanted, he often skipped practices or walked out in the middle of them.

In the classroom, Mata had even further to go. Because of self-proclaimed laziness, Mata failed all but two classes during his first year at South Gate.

It wasn't until it became clear that he might have the potential to play basketball in college that his attitude started to change.

"Sophomore year and junior year, everyone told me where basketball could take me and what it could do for me," Mata said. "I needed to change, so I did. I've changed a lot."

Mata became serious about practice and studied Laker games on television to learn more about the game. He buckled down in the classroom too, dedicating hours to studying that had previously been spent playing video games.

Last semester, Mata had better than a B average. However, he had fallen so far behind that first year, he is still trying to catch up.

Mata is taking seven classes this semester and will not officially be a senior until he passes them. As a result, he will miss South Gate's first nine games because he is ineligible to play until after Christmas.

To Mata, the extra work is worth it.

"Being the first one in my family to go to college means a lot," he said. "Hopefully, that will encourage some of my cousins and other family members to stay in school and keep working hard and try to go to college."

Considering his own words, Mata paused and laughed.

"I don't think I could picture myself saying that my sophomore year," he said.

A letter Mata received before his junior year sparked the change in his attitude. It was from Boise State -- his first recruiting letter. Soon after, letters from other schools arrived and the opportunity he had sunk in.

"I wasn't getting letters and then all of a sudden I started getting them," he said. "I said, 'I'm going have to work hard this season and see what it could get me.' "

Although Mata's skills on offense still need polishing, his toughness on defense impressed the new staff at UCLA.

Howland's Pittsburgh teams were regularly among the best defensive units in the nation. Last season, Pittsburgh held opponents to 39% shooting from the field and 59.2 points a game.

Howland's lineups have annually been comprised of players who were not considered top national recruits out of high school, and Mata fits the bill.

He averaged 25 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocked shots as a junior, leading South Gate to its first City Section playoff victory in 11 years, but he wasn't considered a blue-chipper until impressive performances over the summer at club tournaments.

"I love Lorenzo because of his toughness," Howland said Wednesday night. "He's hard-nosed and he only knows one speed out there. He works hard, and that's what I like."

Mata is the first South Gate player to receive a Division I basketball scholarship, and he signed his letter of intent Wednesday at a media event the school played host to in his honor.

Dana Pump, who runs Southland-based age-group teams, said Mata has improved more in the last year than any player he can remember.

"He saw his opportunity and seized it," Pump said. "He is going to win the hearts of UCLA fans. It'll be like Fernando-mania.

"From where he came from to UCLA is a remarkable story.... This is the Mecca. He's going to be the center at UCLA. Jabbar, Walton and Mata. It just shows you where a little hard work can take you."

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