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March 27, 2008
Bruins set to take on Hilltoppers
The slick junior point guard and gifted freshman center accounted for 40 of UCLA's 51 points in the Bruins' 51-49 second-round squeaker over Texas A&M.
But it was an aberration, the two players say, and the wealth will be shared against Western Kentucky in the West region semifinals on Thursday.
"We can spread it around," Love said. "Josh Shipp will start knocking down shots. He has been shooting the ball all week. Luc's (Luc Richard Mbah Moute) ankle is back to 100 percent. And Russell Westbrook has been shooting the ball well in practice."
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is especially important to the Bruins, coach Ben Howland said at Wednesday's news conference. The big forward missed two games with a sprained left ankle before returning against Texas A&M.
"We know at this point, without Luc playing major minutes, it is going to be very rough for us to advance," Howland said. "He has been a three-year starter. He is an integral part of what we do at both ends of the floor. I expect him to play, hoping that he doesn't get in any kind of foul trouble, at least 30 minutes tomorrow.
Mbah a Moute had two points, eight rebounds, and six turnovers in what he acknowledged was a rusty 32 minutes against the Aggies. He underwent an MRI as a precaution on Monday but said he was ready to go against the Hilltoppers.
"As far as the pain, my ankle - the pain is less," Mbah a Moute said. "I don't feel much pain, and the swelling went down. If I have to give a percentage, I would say 90, 95 percent hopefully tomorrow."
Shipp, meanwhile, is recovering from strep throat and trying to find his outside shot. In his last three games, Shipp went 5-for-21, 0-for-10 on 3-pointers. Westbrook hasn't fared much better, going 8-for-29, 2-for-8 on 3s, in the last three victories.
Still, the Bruins have won 12 in a row, even though five of their last eight have been by three points or less and another was in overtime.
"This team has been through a lot of close games, not only late this season, but the last three years," Howland said. "We've won more than we lost in close games. And I think that's the sign of a good team and a good program."
So it's safe to assume the Bruins (33-3) will not take anything for granted against No. 12 seed Western Kentucky (29-6), though no 12th-seeded team has beaten a No. 1.
"No matter what the seedings are," Collison said, "we have to play against a team that will give it their best shot."
The Hilltoppers, winners of eight in a row, advanced to Phoenix with a 101-99 overtime upset of Drake, followed by a 72-63 win against a San Diego team that had knocked off No. 4 seed Connecticut.
"I don't think there is any question it would be hard for us to be here without the senior leadership that we have," coach Darrin Horn said, "and the fact that those guys have been in the program for a long time, believe in what we're doing and believe in each other, probably more importantly."
Western Kentucky hasn't been this deep in the NCAA tournament since 1993, when Horn was a sophomore guard on the team and his assistant, Cypheus Bunton, was a junior forward. That team, seeded seventh, lost to No. 3 seed Florida State in overtime. Horn scored 17 in that contest.
So the coach knows what the players are feeling.
"We try to help them understand that this is a great experience. That it is hard to describe unless you've actually done it, and it will stick with you for the rest of your life," Horn said.
Howland said he was impressed with Western Kentucky when he studied film Tuesday night of the Hilltoppers' 88-82 loss to Tennessee in December.
"I mean, Tennessee is a team that obviously has been there all year, and has been ranked No. 1," Howland said. "They (the Hilltoppers) are right there. It is a one point game with two minutes to go. That game could have gone either way. So they're a team, as is any team that's left in the tournament right now, that can beat anybody."
The question is, can anybody beat a UCLA team that seems to get all the breaks at the end of close games. Referee's calls - or non-calls - have loomed large in several of the Bruins' wins.
The Texas A&M game was the most recent example. A photograph clearly showed that Shipp fouled the Aggies' Donald Sloan on what would have been a game-tying basket in the closing seconds.
"It is interesting that there seems like there's been an idea that there's some kind of conspiracy theory that's helping UCLA with the officials," Howland said. "I hope that's true, but I assure you it's not."