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The Sports Report: Don’t look now, but UCLA is in first place

APphoto_Arizona St UCLA Basketball
UCLA celebrates its victory Thursday.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / AP)

Howdy, I’m your host, Houston Mitchell. Let’s get right to the news.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. ran down the court, accompanied by his coach’s voice screaming at him to set a screen.

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The UCLA freshman guard was supposed to be a complementary player with the score tied against Arizona State on the final play of a taut game matching the Pac-12 Conference’s most sizzling teams. The plan was for Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell to drive and get fouled or find an open teammate.

As Campbell repeatedly dribbled the ball between his legs on the perimeter, probing for an opportunity, Jaquez circled back behind him and picked up a screen from Campbell.

Suddenly freed from defenders, Jaquez rose for a three-pointer. He fell down after the ball left his hands, following its arc from his backside.

“It felt good,” Jaquez would say later. “It felt good going off my hand, it looked good and that was it.”

That was it, and that was that. Bruins 75, Arizona State 72.

Jaquez’s three-pointer fell through the net with six-tenths of a second left. The fans howled inside Pauley Pavilion. UCLA’s rise from January morbidity to an improbable share of first place in the Pac-12 was complete.

USC BASKETBALL

Hampered by a stomach virus that he called “the worst sickness I’ve ever had,” Jonah Mathews scored 12 of his team-high 14 points in the second half of USC’s 57-48 victory over Arizona on Thursday at Galen Center.

Stricken by injuries, illnesses and family tragedy in recent weeks, USC, which lost five of its previous seven games, earned a resume-boosting victory as its NCAA hopes were starting to sag.

“It’s do or die,” said Mathews, who received two IVs after contracting the stomach bug last weekend while the Trojans were on the road. “I don’t have another year, I don’t have any other excuses.”

With the Wildcats (19-9, 9-6 Pac-12) ranked No. 7 in the NCAA’s NET rankings heading into Thursday’s game, USC (20-9, 9-7 Pac-12) picked up an all-important Quad 1 win to help woo the selection committee.

The Trojans are 4-7 in Quad 1 games, which consider home games against teams in the top 30 of the NET rankings, neutral games against the top 50 and road games against the top 75. Neither of USC’s remaining home games — Arizona State (No. 43 in NET ranking) and UCLA (78) — currently qualify for a Quad 1 win.

“They understood this game was extremely important,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “We needed to win this game.”

LAKERS

All LeBron James could do was sit on the Lakers’ bench and watch his teammates sleepwalk for the entire first half against a Golden State Warriors team that has the worst record in the NBA and has been decimated by injuries.

James didn’t play because of a sore groin, and his teammates didn’t start playing in earnest until the third quarter, the Lakers finally running away with a 116-86 victory Thursday night at the Chase Center.

“We felt their intensity in the first half. Credit coach Kerr,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said of his Warriors counterpart Steve Kerr. “They’ve done a great job keeping their group playing extremely hard and with great intensity and we saw that in the first half.”

The Lakers erupted for 40 points in the third quarter to build a 25-point lead. That put the Lakers on the road to their seventh consecutive victory and sent the Warriors to their eighth straight loss.

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CLIPPERS

After he signed with the Clippers, the team’s community relations team brought a number of service ideas to Kawhi Leonard, with the team’s superstar immediately zeroing in on efforts in public schools, in Moreno Valley, where he grew up, and in Los Angeles.

That initiative began before the season when Leonard worked with the Clippers and their partners to donate 1 million backpacks. And Friday, when the Clippers host the Denver Nuggets, that number will grow by almost 20,000.

Fans attending the game at Staples Center will each receive a backpack, but the idea is bigger than that. Inside each bag will be a note from Leonard offering instructions. The gist? Take this bag and use it as an agent of change for a cause you’re passionate about — whether it’s education, homelessness, hunger, whatever.

The Clippers are calling the program “#Kawhiit.”

“Show the world how you #Kawhiit by using this backpack to have someone’s back. Let your actions do the talking,” the note reads. “Fill it with food to give to someone who’s hungry, a blanket for someone who’s cold, books for a child who has none. Or do your own thing. I get that.”

LAFC

Shut out in the first game of the two-leg playoff nine days ago and frustrated for most of Thursday’s rematch, LAFC was 13 minutes from elimination in the regional club championship when late goals by Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi gave it both new life and a 3-0 win over León.

The two scores, which came two minutes apart, also gave LAFC a 3-2 edge in aggregate goals over the two games, sending it on to next month’s tournament quarterfinals with Mexico’s Cruz Azul.

It was also the most important win in the franchise’s short history. And the team treated it that way.

“I’ve never experienced something like this,” goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer said. “It’s amazing, unbelievable.”

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DODGERS

The loose hips that give Kiké Hernández the mobility and agility to play seven field positions in his super utility role for the Dodgers do not always serve him well in the batter’s box.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing [to have] in baseball, but in my case, it’s like my own enemy,” Hernández said. “My front hip [was] flying open.”

Hernández said he was “messing around” with different swing mechanics on the workout day before the National League division series last October when something clicked, an adjustment that better synchronized his upper body with his legs. He noticed an immediate difference when he “started hitting the ball really far” in batting practice.

Buoyed by a strong performance in a five-game playoff loss to the Washington Nationals, when he went three for seven (.429) with a homer, a double and three RBIs in three games, Hernández continued to refine his swing with Dodgers hitting coach Brant Brown in Arizona over the winter.

The early spring training returns are promising.

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TODAY’S LOCAL MAJOR SPORTS SCHEDULE

All times Pacific.

Denver at Clippers, 7:30 p.m., ESPN, Fox Sports Prime Ticket, AM 570

Pittsburgh at Ducks, 7 p.m., FSW, AM 830

Colorado vs. UCLA (women), 8 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

Utah at USC (women), 6 p.m., Pac-12 Networks

Dodgers vs. Milwaukee (exhibition game), Noon, Spectrum Sportsnet, AM 570

Angels vs. Texas (exhibition game), Noon, FSW, AM 830

BORN ON THIS DATE

1940: Race car driver Mario Andretti

1945: Football player/actor Bubba Smith (d. 2011)

1951: Skier Gustavo Thoeni

1955: Former Laker Adrian Dantley

1958: Hockey player Mark Pavelich

1965: Hockey player Mikko Makela

1970: Runner Noureddine Morceli

1973: Hockey player Eric Lindros

DIED ON THIS DATE

2015: Former Angel Alex Johnson, 72

2015: Basketball player Anthony Mason, 48

AND FINALLY

Bubba Smith talks about being in the “Police Academy” movies. Watch it here.

Until next time...
That concludes today’s newsletter. If you have any feedback, ideas for improvement or things you’d like to see, email me at houston.mitchell@latimes.com, and follow me on Twitter at @latimeshouston. To get this newsletter in your inbox, click here.


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