BRUINS START OFF WITH ROUT UCLA DOMINATES CHAMINADE, BUT KENTUCKY NEXT UP UCLA 88, CHAMINADE 63.
Byline: BRIAN DOHN Staff Writer
LAHAINA, Hawaii - UCLA's backup point guard situation is stabilized with the emergence of Russell Westbrook, according to coach Ben Howland, so one of the Bruins' remaining mysteries is at center.
Lorenzo Mata seized control of the lead spot, despite missing a month of preseason because of knee surgery, but how he measures up to the best in the nation could decide how late in March the Bruins play.
The first indicator should come tonight when the Bruins face Randolph Morris and Kentucky in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.
No. 5 UCLA earned the right to face the Wildcats with a systematic, although not nearly flawless, destruction of host Chaminade 88-63 Monday in the first round in front of 2,400 fans crammed into the sold-out Lahaina Civic Center.
The Division II Silverswords (0-1) played hard, but were no match for a UCLA squad picked to win the Pacific-10 Conference.
But a much tougher test comes today when the Bruins (2-0) meet the 20th- ranked Wildcats (3-0), and with that comes the chore of slowing down the 6-foot-11 Morris. He scored 20 points and had nine rebounds in an 87-81 defeat of DePaul.
Under Howland, UCLA has had success double-teaming big men in the low post, with long-armed power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute often providing the double-team. So more than his scoring, Morris' ability to quickly pass away from the double-team could be key if the Wildcats are to win.
Mata, who is 6-foot-8, 235 pounds, is UCLA's best low-post defender, but depth is an issue at center. Sophomore Alfred Aboya will also get plenty of minutes, but foul trouble could cause the Bruins to use sophomore Ryan Wright, who remains talented but raw.
Another factor could be Mata's conditioning, and how his surgically-repaired right knee will respond to playing back-to-back days. He had arthroscopic surgery in mid-October, and returned to practice 11 days ago.
A UCLA win over Kentucky would send the Bruins to the title game of the prestigious Maui Invitational for the first time. They finished sixth in 1995, and in third in 2001.
Chaminade returned three key members of its NCAA Division II tournament team from last season, but was playing its first game and incorporating seven new players into the fold.
Although the final score left no doubt as to UCLA's superiority (and neither did the Bruins' 43-20 halftime lead), it wasn't without some "what- if" moments in the first half.
UCLA shot itself to a 17-2 lead in the opening five minutes as Arron Afflalo made a trio of 3-pointers and also scored from close range on a pretty feed from Mbah a Moute.
But Afflalo picked up his second foul minutes later and the Bruins seemed to lack the spark and fire it had the first eight minutes. Zach Whiting, an All-America candidate, trimmed a 20-5 UCLA lead with a pair of baskets 36 seconds apart.
UCLA maintained its double-digit lead from that point, but the ragged play was enough for Howland to burn a timeout after Darrell Birton 3/8s 3-pointer pulled Chaminade, which changed to a zone defense late in the half, within 31-18 with 4:31 left in the first half.
Howland's message apparently got through to the Bruins, because UCLA tightened up defensively and began attacking the Silverswords' zone with more purpose. Josh Shipp scored on UCLA's next possession, and Michael Roll added a 3-pointer.
About the only thing missing from UCLA's offense in the first half was production from Mbah a Moute as a scorer. After scoring a career-high 24 points in the opener against BYU, his only first-half points came on a 3- pointer with 2:11 left as UCLA took a 39-20 lead.
Mbah a Moute had three assists and five rebounds in the opening 20 minutes.
2 photos, box
(1 -- color) Chaminade's Zack Whiting, right, gets a basket under pressure from UCLA's Darren Collison on Monday.
(2) UCLA coach Ben Howland gives instructions during the firsthalf of the Bruins' game Monday against Chaminade.
Michael Conroy/Associated Press