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Winner Takes All?
Kelli Anderson
March 03, 1997
UCLA smothered Duke in a matchup that has never failed to foretell the eventual national champion
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March 03, 1997

Winner Takes All?

UCLA smothered Duke in a matchup that has never failed to foretell the eventual national champion

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UCLA coach Steve Lavin is a man of many metaphors, similes, analogies and cornball clich�s, and they come at you fast and furious, like a driving hailstorm. They range in theme from the maritime (when he took over for the fired Jim Harrick two weeks before the season began, Lavin felt as if he had been made "captain of a ship that had already set sail in the middle of a storm") to the automotive (in the Bruins' 48-point loss to Stanford on Jan. 9, the Cardinal was "hitting on all cylinders and our wheels fell off") to the pugilistic (his team's game against Duke on Sunday "was like a championship fight, two heavyweights going toe-to-toe").

Though Lavin had already used the fight analogy at least once this season (in a 74-71 loss at Louisville on Jan. 25, UCLA was the heavyweight that "didn't get up off the floor"), it was particularly apt on Sunday, when the No. 17 Bruins hosted the No. 6 Blue Devils at Pauley Pavilion. No title was on the line in this matchup between the leaders of the Pac-10 and the ACC, but a few weighty things were at stake. Foremost, perhaps, was momentum: UCLA had won its last four games; Duke, its last seven. And for NCAA-tournament-seeding purposes, both teams needed to show some muscle against a formidable nonconference foe. Going into Sunday the Bruins were 0-4 against high-caliber teams outside the Pac-10. Duke, similarly, had lost to Indiana and Michigan, two of its four ranked nonconference foes this season.

Sunday's game had particular meaning for Lavin, who idolizes Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski and has pestered him for nuggets of coaching wisdom for 10 years. "Coach K is the ideal coach for the '90s," says the 32-year-old Lavin. "He is a successful coach, husband and father. That's all I want to be. He is my role model." (Asked on Saturday how that made him feel, Coach K said, "Old.")

Adding further interest to the game was a historical sidelight: Every time these teams had met in Pauley—twice in 1966-67 and once each in '92 and '95—the winner had gone on to earn the national title. And so on Sunday an arena-record 13,478 fans shunned L.A.'s beautiful 76� weather and packed themselves into Pauley, which, need anyone be reminded, has been home to more than a few great teams in the last 32 years, including all but the first two of John Wooden's 10 NCAA champions, as well as the national champs coached by Harrick two years ago. "It was the loudest I've ever heard it in there," said UCLA junior forward J.R. Henderson after the game. "My ears actually hurt."

The 11 a.m. start also had Henderson suffering. "I'm not a morning person," he said by way of explaining his somnolent play, two points, one rebound, in the first half. Once noon arrived, however, he was jolted awake, scoring the Bruins' first six points of the second half to stretch UCLA's one-point halftime lead to seven. The Bruins would trail five times in the final eight minutes before Henderson delivered the knockout punch—and his 15th and 16th points of the half—on a putback with 56 seconds left. Junior guard Toby Bailey, whose defense stifled Duke's three-point sharpshooter, sophomore Trajan Langdon, all day, sealed the 73-69 win by sinking two free throws with 15 seconds to go. Thrilled down to their flip-flops, UCLA students stormed the court.

Two months ago it would have been difficult to imagine anyone getting excited about this game. The Blue Devils, the preseason No. 10 pick, struggled early, barely beating Florida State in a home game in which starting senior guard Jeff Capel scored no points and was actually booed by the Duke fans. Against Michigan at home, the Blue Devils squandered a 12-point lead in the final 10 minutes and lost. In ACC play they opened 2-2 and were largely forgotten in the hubbub surrounding the eye-catching starts of Wake Forest, Clemson and Maryland. Duke didn't begin shaping up as a possible No. 1 tournament seed until early February, when it switched to a smaller, faster, three-guard lineup. By the time the Blue Devils arrived in Los Angeles last Friday, they had quietly built a game-and-a-half lead in the ACC.

UCLA's road to the Pac-10 lead had been even bumpier. After Lavin, a former Harrick assistant with no head-coaching experience, stepped into the top job in November, the preseason No. 5 Bruins lost to Tulsa, Kansas and Illinois in the space of five weeks and then hit rock bottom at Stanford, losing 109-61, the worst defeat in school history. Critics accused players of being concerned only with their personal stats and their NBA prospects, and slapped an underachiever label on UCLA. "Every guy on this team feared that we would go down in history as a team that didn't live up to its potential," says junior swingman Kris Johnson. "We all doubted our worth. It got very depressing for a while."

Meanwhile, Lavin, toiling under the thankless title of interim coach, was trying to plow through two seemingly impossible tasks: instilling discipline into a team that wasn't used to it and ignoring the naysayers who were skeptical of his youth and inexperience—a group that, much to Lavin's shock and disappointment, included Harrick, who said on ESPN in December that he didn't think Lavin would be hired permanently. (He was, on Feb. 11.) "I sought advice from other coaches," says Lavin. "Krzyzewski was the one who told me to concentrate on the players. They were the ones who really needed me."

When he took over, Lavin posted on every player's locker a list of the 23 components of the "Bruin Attitude," such as going to class, not cursing on the court, and showing up on time to practices and games. Henderson, Johnson and sophomore center Jelani McCoy all tested Lavin's limits on punctuality shortly thereafter and found themselves sitting on the bench. Swearing or pouting on the court was punished with wind sprints for the whole team.

"Basically, we had to decide to do what Coach says," says senior point guard Cameron Dollar. "It sounds simple, but we all had different ways we wanted to go. It took a lot of running sprints for his way to sink in."

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