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March 22, 2007

UCLA grinds out a win over Pitt 64-55

Box Score

SAN JOSE, Calif. -Ben Howland set the tone early, crouching into a defensive stance with his arms in the air, yelling out assignments.

And he's only UCLA's coach.

His players paid just as much attention at the defensive end in a style all-too-familiar for Pittsburgh. The style Howland employed in four years at Pitt ended up knocking the Panthers out of the NCAA tournament when the Bruins won the West Regional semifinal 64-55 Thursday night.

"It starts with our coach," point guard Darren Collison said. "He emphasizes defense all year long and we showed it pays to be physical."

The second-seeded Bruins (29-5) never trailed in the grind-it-out game that matched Howland against his best friend and former assistant, Jamie Dixon. With teams using the same tight defensive style, sometimes the only way to score was when the shots weren't contested.

That's just what Arron Afflalo and the Bruins did. Afflalo made all 10 of his free throws and UCLA shot 23-for-26 from the line, scoring 12 of its final 18 points on foul shots.

"We did a great job to knock down free throws, and it's a good thing we did because we weren't scoring a lot," forward Josh Shipp said. "I think we're just getting down to business and focusing on free throws."

Third-seeded Pitt (29-8) cut a 12-point lead down to five when Levance Fields hit a pair of 3s and Ronald Ramon added another in an 88-second span, but Michael Roll's baseline jumper with 51.5 seconds left put the Bruins up 58-51.

"We never really pulled away," Afflalo said. "That team kept competing and they did a great job staying in the game. We were very fortunate tonight."

The Bruins advanced to play Kansas (33-4) in Saturday's regional final in a matchup of two of college basketball's most storied teams. The top-seeded Jayhawks beat Southern Illinois 61-58 in the first game in San Jose.

Afflalo finished with 17 points, going 3-for-11 from the floor in another poor shooting night. Shipp added 16 and Collison had 12 as the Bruins advanced to regional finals in consecutive years for the first time since 1979-80.

Ramon scored 12 points to lead the Panthers, who lost in the regional semifinals for the fourth time in six seasons. They haven't been to the round of eight since 1974, when it took only two wins to get there. Fields added 11 and Aaron Gray was held to 10 in his final college game.

"They're a very good defensive team," Gray said. "Obviously we knew that going in. We knew it wasn't going to be an up-and-down game. You got to give them a lot of credit. They did a great job forcing us out of our stuff. At the same time, we missed a lot of shots that we're accustomed to making."

The Panthers shot just 2-of-12 to open the second half, missing more than a dozen layups as UCLA's big men allowed nothing easy underneath. They never really threatened UCLA after that and finished the game at 36 percent shooting.

"Our defense was spectacular tonight," Howland said. "It had to be or we weren't going to win this game."

Shipp, who missed the Bruins' run to the title game a year ago because of a hip injury, hit two key 3-pointers early in the half. The rest was done at the foul line. Even Lorenzo Mata got into foul shooting rhythm, making a pair in the second half despite being a 37 percent foul shooter on the season. That got a big round of applause from the pro-Bruins crowd that filled the arena.

This matchup between coaches who are also best friends could only have happened in the NCAA tournament. The two have said they would never schedule a regular-season meeting because they saw no benefit to playing a close friend.

"It's emotional for me," Howland said. "I've got a lot of good friends over there. I hope we never have to play again."

The relationship between the coaches runs deep, dating to when Howland recruited Dixon to play at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1980s. The two then worked together at UCSB, Northern Arizona and Pitt over the years before Howland left for UCLA following the 2002-03 season and Dixon replaced him.

"There were a few instances when I recognized the play calls and the motion that they were running," Afflalo said. "That probably worked to our advantage, but maybe they could say the same thing."

The Panthers opened the game 5-for-19 shooting, unable to get open looks against UCLA's stifling man-to-man defense. Pitt went more than 5 minutes without a field goal in one stretch, but only trailed by seven because of their own defense and ability to get to the foul line.

"I can't remember another game where we missed that many layups or easy looks," Pitt forward Levon Kendall said. "I don't know what it was. Just one of those things."

The Panthers made five of their final six shots of the half but still trailed 32-26 at the break when Afflalo scored five points in the final 2 minutes, including his first 3-pointer of the game with 1:14 to go in the half.

For more coverage of the UCLA Bruins, visit BruinBlitz.com; for more coverage of the Pittsburgh Panthers, visit PantherLair.com.



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