PHILADELPHIA -- It wasn't simply another pep talk. UCLA basketball players received a spur-of-the-moment blessing from two L.A. stars of the game Monday morning as they wrapped up practice at Pauley Pavilion.
Magic Johnson and Michael Cooper, who arrived at Pauley for their own workouts as the Bruins were finishing, ducked into the locker room and gave the players a few words of advice for tonight's East Regional semifinal against Duke. So poignant was the send-off, some Bruins got goose bumps.
Johnson spoke first, huddling the players close.
We were just staring at him," guard Billy Knight said. Everybody was kind of in awe. He just said, Be strong. Don't back down to anybody.' He'd been watching Duke, and he'd never seen a team really go at Duke. He said, Usually when teams play Duke, the game is over from the start.' "
No surprise here: Cooper, one of the greatest NBA defenders, said the game will be decided at that end of the court.
Those guys are the godfathers of basketball and they watch us all the time," guard Ray Young said. It was kind of amazing that they knew everybody's roles on the team. They were calling people out by name."
But inspirational speeches only go so far. In Duke, the Bruins are facing a team that finished the season ranked No. 1 and features two of the country's best players in point guard Jason Williams and forward Shane Battier. The Blue Devils have lost four games this season -- to Stanford, North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland--and the school boasts the best winning percentage (75.8 percent) in tournament history.
The Bruins are unfazed. They beat Stanford on the road, after all, and the Cardinal knocked off Duke. That has to count for something.
"A lot of East Coast people are counting us out," Knight said. "But I know our team, we're not counting each other out. As long as we just stay together, we can beat any team. There's no unbeatable team in college basketball."
So why does Duke have an air of invincibility?
"Probably because they have the player of the year in Shane Battier and they're on TV every week, so everybody can see them. That's what makes them look good. But I just think we can beat them."
Although the Bruins are coming off consecutive games in which they played at a slower tempo, Thursday night's game should feature a playground pace. Lots of fastbreaks. Bushels of three-point shots.
"We pushed the tempo up early in the season, then we got away from it as the season went along, and now we're going back to it," said Duke center Carlos Boozer, who is recovering from a broken foot and has been cleared to play. "We started off fastbreaking a lot, and now we're going to do it again. We'll pick up the tempo on defense, and I think it's going to be an easy adjustment for me."
Williams has made a school-record 120 three-point baskets this season, and Battier is right behind with 115. Forty-two percent of the Blue Devils' shots from the field are launched from behind the arc, and the team sometimes uses a lineup that features five long-range threats.
Said Battier: "It should be a high-scoring, high-flying affair."
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And the Bruins have no intention of backing down. They plan to attack Duke offensively -- something they say has not been done by many teams -- and try to work the ball inside to center Dan Gadzuric, who has five double-doubles in six games.
Barnes will spend a great deal of his time guarding Battier, although he will get help. The Bruins hope to keep the Duke star on the perimeter and challenge him to beat them with three-pointers.
"This is a dream come true," Barnes said. "It's a team game; you can't really look at one-on-one matchups, but if you were to look at this one, it's a great opportunity. I love it. He's the national player of the year, the defensive player of the year, he's supposed to be The Man in college basketball. So it's going to be a great opportunity for me."
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