UCLA got a huge lift from JaRon Rush that may carry the Bruins to the NCAA tournament
After UCLA sophomore JaRon Rush sank what appeared to be a game-winning jumper with three seconds remaining last Saturday to upset top-ranked Stanford on its home court, Cardinal coach Mike Montgomery ran onto the floor and insisted to the officials and to his UCLA counterpart, Steve Lavin, that the shot clock had expired and the Bruins still trailed by a point. Lavin did what any good coach would do: He spirited his players off the court and toward the locker room while the refs still had UCLA ahead. Only the joyous Bruins mistakenly went to the wrong locker room, where the door was locked, leaving them stranded in a hallway. They were then summoned back to the floor, where the officials were examining a television replay of the closing seconds. Upon further review, UCLA's 94-93 overtime victory stood, prompting the Bruins to run jubilantly off the Maples Pavilion court once more. "It's rare when you get to celebrate a win twice," Lavin says.
It was indeed unusual, but given the dearth of opportunities UCLA has had to celebrate this season, Lavin will take it. Two weeks ago the Bruins were coming off their sixth loss in seven games and seemed destined to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time in 12 years. But last week they demonstrated impressive resilience, overcoming 19- and 15-point deficits in road wins at Cal and Stanford, respectively, to run their record to 17-11 (8-8 in the Pac-10). Now instead of a dispiriting trip to the NIT, the Bruins have a good shot at an NCAA at-large bid if they can beat the two Washington schools this week. "I'm proud of the way this team has handled adversity, but we really needed that win on Saturday," Lavin says. "You can only go on moral victories for so long."
No UCLA player wanted the win as much as Rush. He'd learned just five days before the game against Stanford that the NCAA, which had suspended him for 29 games in January because of benefits he had received from an agent, had reduced that penalty to nine games, clearing the way for him to return last Saturday. Rush had worked out with the Bruins while he was suspended, but he had attended only about a half-dozen practices in the last three weeks because he'd had to meet with lawyers in his hometown of Kansas City, Kans. Rush seemed overwhelmed by the week's events, which were capped by his team-high 19 points in 26 minutes on Saturday. When he made his way into the locker room, the first thing that he did was go to a sink and splash cold water on his face and neck. "I just looked at myself in the mirror and thought, I can't believe this is happening to me," Rush says.
UCLA had been arguably one of the nation's most underachieving teams before last week. As the Bruins piled up losses, they provided fodder for critics who deride Lavin as someone who is capable of recruiting talented players but has little clue what to do with them once they get to UCLA. One NBA scout who visited a practice early this season came away unimpressed and said, "There was no teaching going on."
Lavin's well of optimism remains bottomless, however, and that has served the Bruins well. "I don't know that I feel vindicated," he says. "All the criticism goes with the territory. I try to teach my players that if you keep your chin up and have a good attitude, then special things are possible."
Big South's Big Winner
Another Dance For Winthrop
The night before he scored 18 points and got 18 rebounds to help Winthrop beat host UNC-Asheville 75-62 and clinch the Big South Conference's automatic bid to the NCAAs, Eagles forward Greg Lewis couldn't draw iron. Too excited to sleep, the 6'6" junior sat up in bed until 3 a.m. shooting woefully at the Nerf hoop he'd brought with him while nervously yapping at his roommate, swing-man Derrick Knox. "Just 40 minutes from the Big Dance," Lewis kept saying. "DK, do you have any idea what I've been through to get here?"
Lewis's odyssey began in 1994 when he flunked the 10th grade at East High in Akron because he had skipped nearly 100 days of classes. The following year he dedicated himself to his academics and played organized basketball for the first time, making the East High varsity. The next season, as a senior, he led the city in scoring. With no basketball eligibility left and still lacking sufficient credits to graduate, Lewis turned to John Saucier, an Akron minister and AAU coach, who steered him to Medina ( Ohio) Christian Academy. Lewis would awaken at six every weekday morning for a two-hour journey, including a car trip and two bus rides, to get to the tiny religious school where he was the only black student. Lewis averaged 29.6 points a game at Medina and earned his diploma. From there he went on to Seward Community College in Liberal, Kans., for a semester before settling at another juco, Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, where he had a 179-point scoring average a year ago.
Last summer Saucier cold-called 30 colleges, seeking a Division I school that would sign Lewis. The last school on his list was Winthrop. Lewis had never heard of Winthrop and wanted to go to South Alabama, which also came through with a scholarship offer. There was one hang-up: Lewis's mother, Brenda, refused to sign the letter of intent for South Alabama, insisting, "I like Winthorp [sic]!" Actually, what she really liked was Eagles coach Gregg Marshall, who had impressed her as a man that she could trust. Marshall had a scholarship available only because a player had recently left Winthrop to play pro ball in Belgium, so Lewis accepted it in July. He ended up leading the Eagles in scoring this season. "Greg's a hungry kid," Saucier says. "He's been knocked down plenty of times, but he has always refused to surrender."