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UCLA finding a post pattern

Times Staff Writer

It was Donny Daniels, a UCLA assistant coach, who first encouraged Lorenzo Mata to develop a left-handed hook, a shot of fundamental beauty and indefensible reliability.

“Coach Danny, when I first came here, he thought I had a tremendous left hand,” Mata said this week. “He said I should start using it more. Now I have been using it more, and so far it’s difficult to stop.”

Since sitting out the second half of a 70-65 loss to West Virginia four games ago, the 6-foot-10 center has made 17 of 21 shots (81%) and averaged 10.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and nearly two blocked shots a game. And more than that, he has played with confidence, stepping forward to grab passes in traffic and make plays.

His is the kind of energy the second-ranked Bruins (25-3 overall, 14-2 in the Pacific 10 Conference) need as they begin their final conference trip of the year against No. 13 Washington State (23-5, 12-4) in Pullman.

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The second-place Cougars need to beat UCLA and USC and hope UCLA also loses at Washington on Saturday to claim a share of their first conference title since 1941. Even with a co-championship, UCLA has clinched the top seeding in next week’s Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center.

As the season progressed, it became clear that junior guard Arron Afflalo and sophomore point guard Darren Collison were the reliable shooting, scoring and defensive pillars of the team. And in the last three weeks, forward Josh Shipp has regained his sense of where and how to score after re-acclimating himself to basketball after missing most of last season because of hip surgery.

It has been in the post where the Bruins have struggled to find a consistent scoring threat.

Afflalo approves of what he’s seeing from his tattooed fellow junior. “Lorenzo’s been playing with a lot of confidence lately,” Afflalo said. “He has a left-hand jump hook, a right-hand jump hook. Once we get a consistent inside-outside presence, that takes our team to a whole other level.

“Last year we wouldn’t have made our run without Ryan Hollins. Hopefully, Lorenzo can provide that spark.”

Hollins, a 7-footer who spent most of his UCLA career underperforming, was a non-stop windmill of shot-blocking, shot-altering and rebounding in the final six weeks of last season. He also led the Bruins in scoring against Memphis in the victory that vaulted UCLA into the Final Four.

Mata spoke to Hollins this week while Hollins was in town with the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats.

“When I was talking to Ryan he was saying I could do even better than him,” Mata said. “Last year at the end I could definitely feel a change for Ryan. He began playing extremely hard. He really wanted to get drafted.”

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And, as Afflalo noted, Mata isn’t the only Bruins post player stepping it up of late. Forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is also becoming more of a threat to score. After averaging 9.1 points and 8.2 rebounds as a freshman, Mbah a Moute’s averages are 8.7 and 7.9 this season.

Coach Ben Howland almost always points to a Mbah a Moute rebound or block-out or screen -- the “little things that make the difference” -- as praiseworthy and says there’s nothing about Mbah a Moute’s game that makes him unhappy.

Against Stanford, Mbah a Moute had 11 points and seven rebounds in 23 foul-filled minutes.

“There’s something about Luc all of a sudden,” Afflalo said. “He’s realizing his opportunities to take advantage of his size and skill level.

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“Against Stanford, Luc had a lot of instances of going where he found one of the [7-foot] Lopez twins and driving right by them, shot-faking, making layups. If he recognizes those situations at the right time, he’s so versatile. He’s hard to stop. And so are we.”

TONIGHT

at Washington State, 7:30, FSN Prime Ticket

Site -- Beasley Coliseum, Pullman.

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Radio -- 570.

Update -- The Bruins lead the Pac-10 in scoring margin (+13.4), field-goal percentage (49.2), and steals (7.79). The Cougars lead the league in scoring defense (57.9) and field-goal percentage defense (38.3%) and rank second nationally in fewest turnovers per game (10.2). UCLA won the first game this season at Pauley Pavilion, 55-52.

diane.pucin@latimes.com


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