March 19, 2000
MINNEAPOLIS - JaRon Rush has an easy explanation for UCLA's awesome display that resembled the NBA's slam dunk contest and 3-point shootout rolled into one.
"Now the country can see what we're like at full strength," Rush said after sixth-seeded UCLA humiliated Maryland and the ACC's best defense 105-70 Saturday night. It was the worst defeat ever administered to a No. 3 seed in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"Everybody's back. Everybody's healthy. Everybody's playing well," Rush said. "This is what you would have seen at the beginning of the season."
But Rush, a sophomore forward, spent three miserable months on the bench while serving suspensions for taking improper payments. For a time, he sat next to forward Matt Barnes, who had to straighten out his grades before he could play.
Just one month ago, the Bruins were banged up and reeling from a 29-point loss at Arizona State and a 15-point loss at Arizona. That left them 13-11 and wondering if they'd even get into the NIT, much less the NCAA tournament.
But Rush returned March 4 and helped the Bruins shock top-ranked Stanford 94-93 in overtime, sealing their NCAA bid.
Now, they take a nine-game winning streak into Auburn Hills, Mich., where they'll face No. 2 seed Iowa State (31-4) and All-American Marcus Fizer in the round of 16.
"Our team is together with Matt and Jaron," Ray Young said. "Our chemistry is on and we're just on a roll."
After the Bruins' dizzying display of rim-rattling alley-oop slams and sweet 3-point swishes Saturday night, UCLA (21-11) will be viewed by many as a national championship contender.
"With all the potential we got up and down the lineup, we definitely knew we could get this far," Young said. "We knew we had the potential. We went through a point where we were doubting ourselves. But now we got that cockiness, the confidence."
And it was on full display from the tip-off, led by junior point guard Earl Watson, who scored 17 points on 6-of-7 shooting, including five 3-pointers. He had four steals and fed his teammates with perfect lobs for a variety of dunks even Vince Carter would have admired.
"Those jams took them out of their rhythm and gave us even more momentum," Rush said. "And every time we hit one today, we just knew that this was how good this team could have been all year."
Watson didn't commit a single turnover in producing a school-record 16 assists, which tied the NCAA first- and second-round record set by New Mexico State's Sam Crawford against Nebraska in 1993.
"He did just about everything you could do as a point guard," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who looked as if he were in shock from UCLA's attack.
The Bruins sprinted to a 14-2 lead, running and dunking every chance they got on the team that beat Duke and Kentucky. They hit 72 percent of their shots in leading 49-33 at halftime.
Williams took three timeouts before the first TV timeout of the second half in an attempt to slow Watson and his teammates.
But there was no brakes on these Bruins, who made 14 of 25 3-pointers, had five players in double figures and scored 26 points off turnovers.
"It was close to perfect," said freshman guard Jason Kapono, whose three 3-pointers gave him a school record 81.
"This team keeps getting better," Bruins coach Steve Lavin said. "And what I like about this group is that they're still hungry. They want to get better."
That's got to concern Fizer and the rest of the Cyclones, who assuredly forgot their 79-60 second-round victory over Auburn as they watched UCLA run wild on the Terrapins.
"Now we feel like we're unstoppable," Bruins forward Rico Hines said.
By ARNIE STAPLETON
AP Sports Writer