Mata ready for big assignment

Times Staff Writer

Lorenzo Mata loves the challenge. The UCLA junior center is not a big-name guy. He wasn't highly recruited and it is never his name that is tied to UCLA's success.

It is up to Darren Collison to replace Jordan Farmar, up to Arron Afflalo to prove his NBA worthiness by leading UCLA in scoring, in playing defense, in just about everything. It is up to Josh Shipp to prove he is an All-American; it is up to sophomore Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to be even better than he was during his Pacific 10 freshman-of-the-year season.

But it might very well be up to Mata today when top-ranked UCLA (12-0, 1-0) meets No. 14 Washington (10-2, 0-1) in a Pac-10 game at Pauley Pavilion.

The Huskies have beaten UCLA three consecutive times, including a sweep last year when the Bruins won the Pac-10.

However, as UCLA Coach Ben Howland said Saturday, "Last year when we played this game we didn't have Ced [Bozeman] or Josh and Lorenzo had just broken his leg."

Mata is healthy now and probably will be assigned to Washington center Spencer Hawes, a 7-foot, 250-pound freshman who already owns a Pac-10 player-of-the-week award and is averaging 16.2 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. He is also a good passer and was considered the No. 2 high school center in the country a year ago.

"What I have to do," Mata said, "is keep him from scoring. If I hold him down and I don't score anything, then I did my job."

When UCLA beat Kentucky in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational, UCLA's bad matchup was supposed to be Mata against Wildcats center Randolph Morris, who almost went to the NBA after his freshman year. Mata, with the help of Mbah a Moute and Alfred Aboya, kept Morris from a big game.

Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith marveled at Mata's strong legs and quick footwork afterward. "He surprised me," Smith said.

"We've got to do a good job by not allowing easy post feeds," Howland said. "If Hawes catches it, that's a problem. We haven't played any center yet as skilled as Spencer Hawes. He's as good as it gets."

The Bruins like to double cover the opposing post player out of their man-to-man coverage, usually letting Mbah a Moute slide over to help Mata. But Mbah a Moute will have a tough assignment in Washington forward Jon Brockman, who is averaging 12.1 points and 10.2 rebounds.

Mata said the key to UCLA's post defense is quickness. "We feel we are faster than any other team," he said. "It's about working our feet and hands and denying the ball to anyone. It's me and Alfred and Luc being quick off our feet. We do special drills every practice just to teach us how to deny the ball. You wouldn't believe how much we work on that in practice."

Coach Lorenzo Romar's Huskies are young this year. They have missed last season's floor leader, Brandon Roy, in their two losses -- both on the road to USC and Gonzaga -- and they start two sophomores and three freshmen. But after a double-overtime loss at USC on Thursday, the Huskies will be motivated.

"They don't want to leave town with two losses," Mata said. "So that's their motivation. We have ours too. We want to stay No. 1."

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