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March 6, 2008

UCLA hosts Stanford for all the marbles

LOS ANGELES (AP) This is the month that counts in college basketball and fittingly, there's a lot on the line when No. 3 UCLA hosts seventh-ranked Stanford on Thursday night.

A victory by the Bruins (26-3, 14-2) would earn them the Pac-10 title outright for the third consecutive season and bolster their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

That would keep the Bruins in the West Region, giving them early round games in Anaheim, with the next two in Phoenix, if they advanced.

"We need to come out pumped up," freshman Kevin Love said. "We know Thursday is going to be a very, very, very, VERY tough game against the Lopez twins and Stanford. This game means a lot more than just winning the Pac-10."

They also could clinch the top seed in next week's Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center.

"This is the only thing that counts, how you play in this month," forward Josh Shipp said.

A loss would drop UCLA into a first-place tie with the Cardinal (24-4, 13-3). Stanford could win the title outright if it also wins at Southern California on Saturday and the Bruins lose to California that day.

If Stanford wins the conference, considered by many to be the nation's best this season, it could knock the Bruins out of the West Region.

The teams also could end up tied atop the standings and the title would be decided by a tiebreaker.

"My primary goal is for us to win the Pac-10 and to win it outright," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "The seedings we have no control over. Obviously, we'd like to stay out West."

UCLA clinched the conference title the past two years on the road - at Stanford in 2006 and at Washington State last year. Students seeking floor seats for the game pitched tents outside Pauley Pavilion on Tuesday.

"It would be special to do it in front of our fans this year," Shipp said. "The fans deserve that."

It's been two months since the teams' first meeting, a 76-67 UCLA road victory that snapped Stanford's seven-game winning streak.

"They're a team that's playing a lot better because they understand what's at stake," Cardinal coach Trent Johnson said about the Bruins.

"This is a basketball program, not a team. Their basketball program just doesn't have any weaknesses, from scheduling to recruiting to all aspects. This is probably the strongest and most dominant program in the West."

In the first meeting, Shipp scored 21 points, including five 3-pointers, and Love and Russell Westbrook had 15 each.

Darren Collison wasn't his usual force driving UCLA's offense because he was overcoming a sprained left knee that had required wearing a brace. But he's in high gear now, averaging 16 points in his past four games.

Stanford's Brook Lopez had 13 points and eight rebounds and Robin Lopez had eight points and 12 rebounds. Both of the 7-foot twins fouled out, while Love had no fouls in 31 minutes.

"I gave them pump-fakes, they went for a lot of shotblocks, just tried to play physical with them, get into them," Love recalled. "I found myself in the right position. A couple spots I found rebounds right under the basket, went right back up, drew the contact."

Stanford had 35 rebounds, four more than the Bruins.

Back then, Brook Lopez had been in action for less than two weeks after missing Stanford's first nine games while academically ineligible. Now he's the Pac-10's fourth-leading scorer with 19.3 points.

"We're starting to execute on the offensive end a little better, but that's going to be tested Thursday without question," Johnson said.

Westbrook and Collison relish crashing opposing defenses with their drives to the basket. But they'll have to adjust, knowing there's another Lopez twin behind the first one.

"Just pull up, don't keep going," Westbrook said. "Shot-fake when you get in there or bring it back out. They have good timing. Once you shot-fake one, you got to watch out for the other one."

John Wooden won't be watching from his usual seat behind the Bruins' bench Thursday night. The 97-year-old coaching great has been hospitalized since last Friday after falling at home and breaking his left wrist and collarbone.

He also will miss the 40th reunion of UCLA's 1968 national championship team on Saturday.

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