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Defense steals win for UCLA

Times Staff Writer

It came down to this. Darren Collison pouncing on a ball misdribbled by Kentucky guard Ramel Bradley, stealing it and whipping it ahead to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who scored with 25 seconds left to put UCLA up by four.

Defense starting a fastbreak, UCLA basketball.

The Bruins beat Kentucky, 73-68, on Tuesday in a semifinal of the EA Sports Maui Invitational at the Lahaina Civic Center. UCLA, ranked fifth, dashed to a 26-9 lead and spent the rest of the night overcoming shaky free-throw shooting, foul trouble and the aggressive 20th-ranked Wildcats (3-1).

Next for UCLA will be No. 19 Georgia Tech today. It is both teams’ first appearance in the tournament championship game. The Yellow Jackets upset 12th-ranked Memphis, 92-85, on Tuesday.

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UCLA (3-0) and Kentucky have won 18 national titles, UCLA with its 11 banners and Kentucky with seven. But Kentucky had won six of nine games between the two, and Wildcats fans owned about 2,000 of the 2,400 seats in the gym here.

UCLA missed 11 of its 24 free throws and 17 of its 19 three-pointers. Kentucky committed 17 turnovers.

Collison’s smart steal and perfect pass sealed the win. UCLA’s point guard finished with 10 points and seven assists although he sat out the final five minutes of the first half with three fouls. Mbah a Moute finished with 18 points and center Lorenzo Mata had 12 points and 11 rebounds, the first double-double for the junior.

“This was a very hard-fought game,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said. “At the end of the day, we won the game not shooting the ball well, doing a poor job on shooting threes.

“And looking at the stats, other than horrible foul shooting by us, it was our lack of turnovers.”

The Bruins committed only eight turnovers; Collison had three but forced many more. And Collison wouldn’t take any credit for his final big play.

“I was lucky,” he said. “He fumbled the ball, he just fumbled the ball and I took it from there.”

UCLA sped to its early lead with Collison doing all the right things, making three-pointers, making pull-up jump shots, making passes so that Mata and Arron Afflalo could drop the ball in from two feet or closer.

But that frenzied aggressiveness also was drawing fouls.

Collison picked up his second with 7:21 left in the half and Howland let the sophomore play.

With 5:18 left, though, Collison got the third. It came after backup Michael Roll committed his second straight turnover and then got beat defensively by guard Derrick Jasper.

The Bruins led 28-18 when Collison left and at halftime it was 38-30 when Kentucky guard Joe Crawford made a three-pointer with four seconds left.

Freshman Russell Westbrook played the final five minutes of the first half and started the second while Collison sat tapping his feet. And early in the second half Mata and Mbah a Moute picked up their third fouls.

With 11:46 left Crawford made a three-pointer to tie the game at 48-48 and the Wildcats took their first lead of the game, 50-48, a minute later.

The Bruins responded with a 7-2 run that included a layup, a free throw and a 12-foot baseline jumper from Afflalo, who had been two for 12 from the field until then and finished five for 18.

What followed was eight minutes of furiously fought basketball.

“This is what we came here for,” Afflalo said, “to play three games in three days at the highest level.”

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diane.pucin@latimes.com


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