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For USC’s Michael Cooper and Oregon’s Paul Westhead, a new chapter

Paul Westhead and Michael Cooper go way back. Back to a day when basketball shorts were short, when Converse sneakers ruled, when Westhead coached the Lakers and Cooper was his defensive stopper.

That might not mean a lot when Westhead’s Oregon Ducks and Cooper’s USC Trojans play Friday in the State Farm Pac-10 women’s basketball tournament at the Galen Center.

Then again, it might.

Westhead’s Ducks play the same sneakers-to-the-accelerator offense his teams have always been known for. They rank fourth nationally in scoring, averaging 81.5 points. On Jan. 16 against Arizona, the Ducks ran up a school-record 112 points — and lost, as the Wildcats put up 119 in the highest-scoring women’s game in Pac-10 history.

Whether the Ducks’ basket-a-minute offense will be enough against USC will be determined in part by the man Westhead encouraged to be a defensive specialist about 30 years ago.

In 1979, Westhead took over as the Lakers’ coach after Jack McKinney was injured in a near-fatal bicycle crash. Cooper was playing in his first full season after sitting out nearly all of his rookie year because of a torn knee ligament.

Early in the 1979-80 season, McKinney stressed defense as a way for Cooper to find a place on the team. When Westhead took over, the message was the same. A big test came Dec. 28, when Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics came to L.A., and Westhead put Cooper on the eventual NBA rookie of the year.

Cheered on by the first sellout crowd at the Forum that season, Cooper helped hold the future Hall of Famer to 16 points on seven-for-15 shooting in 40 minutes, and the Lakers won, 123-105.

“He seized that opportunity,” Westhead said. Bird later called Cooper “the best defender who ever guarded me.”

Recalled Cooper: “That gave me a lot of confidence. That set the stage for me that I can play this game.”

The Lakers won the championship that season, but Westhead didn’t have a long tenure. He was fired in his third season and, after a stint with the Chicago Bulls, the “Guru of Go” took his breakneck pace to Loyola Marymount. There, his teams set scoring records in the late 1980s, including an NCAA Division I standard of 122.4 points a game in 1989-90.

Cooper went on to win NBA defensive player of the year honors in 1987 and made the league’s All-Defensive team in eight of his 12 seasons.

Friday’s game won’t be the first time that Westhead and Cooper have faced each other. They matched up in the WNBA in 2007 when Westhead led the Phoenix Mercury and Cooper guided the Sparks. They split games then, as they did this season, their first coaching women’s college basketball.

“Right at this moment, it’s a draw,” Westhead said Thursday, laughing.

Their meetings always showcase contrasting styles. Cooper’s teams look to dominate on defense. Westhead’s teams look to run-and-gun to outscore opponents.

But Westhead’s philosophy on offense also helped Cooper as a player.

“The running game was much to his advantage versus the setup offense,” Westhead said. “And, of course, he was famous for his flashy slam dunks, so if you got him out on the run he’d jump right over the top of you.”

Said Cooper: “It was great. He was push-the-throttle-to-the-metal-and-go. Had he come in and been a different type of coach where it was a half-court setup, that would not have benefited me.”

As for Friday’s game, “It’s strictly a chess match between he and I,” Cooper said.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com


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