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March 23, 2006

UCLA faces Gonzaga for West Coast supremacy

OAKLAND, Calif. - Los Angeles is celebrities, glitz and showtime basketball. Life's a little bit slower in Spokane, Wash.

When second-seeded UCLA faces third-seeded Gonzaga in the third round of the Oakland regional on Thursday night, it will be a showdown for West Coast supremacy between teams with styles and histories as different as their home cities.

UCLA has 11 national championships and has set the standard for success on the West Coast ever since the days of John Wooden. Even though Gonzaga has been to only one regional final ever, the Bulldogs have been the West Coast's most consistent winner the past few years.

''We don't really we buy into the Cinderella thing,'' junior Sean Mallon said. ''This is why we came to Gonzaga, to get in this situation and play these kinds of games. We look at this is where we should be.''

The differences between the two programs run much deeper than their histories.

But it's the team from Spokane that has the superstar with the distinctive look and movie-star following in Adam Morrison. And it's Gonzaga (29-3) that wants to run up and down the court with defense seeming almost like an afterthought.

UCLA (29-6) employs the grind-it-out style, stressing stingy defense, teamwork and balance that doesn't seem to fit a team from star-driven L.A.

When asked to describe what his team has been about this season, point guard Jordan Farmar didn't hesitate: ''Defense.''

''That says it all. The way we play on the defensive end,'' Farmar said. ''If you want to go back to November, it was nonexistent compared to what we do now. We're such a much better team. We're more of a collective unit. We play for each other. We've grown and gotten to know each other throughout the year.''

Coach Ben Howland's Bruins have won nine straight games, allowing 54 points per game and not allowing any opponent to top 60 points. They will get one of their toughest tests yet with a team that features the nation's leading scorer in Morrison, a dominant low-post threat in J.P. Batista (19.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg) and has won 20 straight games.

Morrison, who averages 28.2 points, is coming off a 5-for-17 shooting performance in the second round win against Indiana when he scored 14 points - only the sixth time this season he's been held under 20 points.

''He can score from 3, he can score off the bounce, he can score in the post, he rebounds his own shot as well as anybody,'' Howland said. ''He poses a lot of problems. There's only a handful of people that are playing the game in college that would ever be talked about in that same light.''

Morrison scored 35 in the opening round against Xavier and has topped 40 points five times this season, something the Bruins laughed about when asked if they could imagine someone scoring that many against their stingy defense.

''My job is to stop the opposing team's best guard, just limit him as much as possible'' said Arron Afflalo, who will likely get the first shot at stopping Morrison. ''One of the luxuries of attending UCLA is I get a lot of opportunities to play against pros throughout the summertime. I've gone to a few camps, played with Michael Jordan, Paul Pierce. I've had my share of experience throughout the year. Just another game for me.''

Afflalo forced Ronald Steele into a key miss down the stretch of a 62-59 win over Alabama in the second round and the Bruins held Belmont to 44 points in their opener.

The Bruins have perhaps the nation's top backcourt in Farmar and Afflalo, the sophomore stars who have played such a key role in UCLA's resurgence from an 11-17 record in Howland's first season in 2003-04 to a trip to the regional semifinals this season.

Both players talked about how restoring UCLA's past played a big role in their decisions to join the Bruins.

''The years just prior to us being there weren't going so well,'' Farmar said. ''Being able to have the opportunity to come in and make an impact and really turn the program around to get it back on track to where it was, was probably the most intriguing part about UCLA.''

Morrison has seen just about every defense imaginable this season, gimmicks and double teams, quick defenders and big ones. There's been one consistent - teams have tried to get physical with Morrison.

''I've seen triangle and two, box and one, face guard, beat the crap out of me. I've seen everything,'' Morrison said. ''Nothing really surprises me anymore. I knew coming in this year I was going to get a lot of that similar type of stuff. When teams do that, it opens it up for everybody else.''

With apologies to Washington, which swept UCLA and beat Gonzaga in the regular season, most are viewing this matchup as one to determine the best team from out West.

The team's have met just once ever, a Gonzaga win at UCLA in 1999. The teams nearly met last season before Texas Tech eliminated the Bruins in the first round of the NCAA tournament before knocking off Gonzaga in round 2.

''We wanted to play UCLA last year instead of Texas Tech so we're definitely looking forward to this,'' forward David Pendergraft said. ''We do want to prove we're the best in the West. We've been bringing it for seven, eight years now and UCLA is back on the rise again.''

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