Plenty of pop for Bruins

Collison sets tone for UCLA's run to Atlanta

Posted: March 28, 2007

SAN JOSE, Calif. - It was a small, mostly unnoticed scene in a game of big, unforgettable plays.

UCLA freshman point guard Russell Westbrook stepped in front of a pass at the defensive end and outraced a charging Kansas player and deposited a two-handed dunk. It gave the Bruins a 21-20 lead midway through the first half in what became a 68-55 victory on Saturday at HP Pavilion, propelling UCLA into yet another Final Four appearance.

As the Bruins came to the bench during the KU timeout that ensued, Darren Collison, the team's starter at the point, jumped from the bench, smacked Westbrook on the butt and rubbed his future replacement's head like he was inspecting a new haircut.

That Collison was euphoric shouldn't come as a surprise. After all, it's what every team plays for - a chance to get to the Final Four.

It's the story behind the gesture that made it special.

Collison, a slender and quick 6-1 sophomore, was in Westbrook's position last season, a backup to then-sophomore Jordan Farmar.

Their relationship, Collison now insists, was fine; perhaps more professional than friendly, but fine nonetheless.

Except one day.

Throughout the season, the fiery Farmar had no problem letting Collison know what the freshman needed to do better. No matter the age, some people have trouble dealing with criticism, even if it is constructive. Collison didn't have trouble with it most of the time. One day he did, so he acted.

He popped Farmar. A punch right to the face.

Whether that solved the problem, no one from the program in Westwood likes to talk about it much anymore. But it certainly showed the toughness Collison possessed. And still does.

The only reason Westbrook was in the game for him on Saturday was because the slight muscles on Collison's 165-pound frame were cramping. Otherwise he might never have come out. As it was, he still played 36 minutes.

It is his job now, running this team. His since Farmar, an All-Pac-10 selection last season, bolted for the riches of the NBA. And if anyone is going to try to take it from him, well, they just might get slugged, too.

"He's done a tremendous job in taking over the point-guard position, taking over this team," teammate Arron Afflalo said. "Losing Jordan was a big loss. But Darren is very athletic, has great quickness. He's done a lot to help this team. He brings positives to the team on both ends of the court."

No more so than this past weekend, when he was named to the All-Regional team after scoring 14 points in the win over Kansas, including a couple of treys, the biggest coming with a little less than 5 minutes left in the game and the Bruins ahead, 55-50. As the shot clock approached expiration, Collison stepped back from two Jayhawks, and let launch from 25 feet.

Swish.

Bruins up eight, a step closer to a second straight Final Four and the 17th in the team's history.

UCLA (30-5) will face Florida (33-5) in one semifinal Saturday in Atlanta. It is a rematch of last year's national championship game, won by the Gators, 73-57.

More impressive was the way Collison disrupted the Jayhawks' high-octane offense. Collison finished with five steals. He stripped off the dribble. He got hands into passing lands. He dug down when the bigs tried to go to the basket, and negated that, too.

The best part of the Jayhawks' offense, beating their defenders off the dribble, was negated by the mercurial sophomore with the shaved head and sparkling smile.

"It's all about doing whatever it takes for the team to win," he said, still holding a piece of cut-down net after the Kansas win. "Everyone has to contribute something. In that situation [his three-pointer], we needed a big shot and the ball was in my hands. Other times it's in other guys' hands. We don't care who it is, we're all confident in each other that we're going to produce, no matter the circumstances."

The circumstances in the West final weren't very good for Collison after halftime. He came out of the locker room, constantly rotating his right shoulder, like a pitcher with a sore arm.

Still, he went out and helped the Bruins take command. Until the cramps started to limit him too much.

Then, like a little kid wary of taking ill-tasting medicine, he resisted trainer Carrie Rubertino as she tried valiantly to get him to drink some kind of concoction she mixed on the sideline. He used the excuse that the drink made his stomach hurt. So Rubertino was left to try to massage out the cramps while Collison sat out for a couple of minutes.

During this break, Westbrook drove the lane and deposited a twisting, in-traffic layup that gave the Bruins a nine-point lead with a little over 13 minutes remaining.

Again, Collison leaped to his feet and greeted his backup with more love as Westbrook sprang to the bench like a pogo stick.

"Look, Jordan last year told me things he thought I needed to know to become a better player," Collison said. "That was his way. I knew that he was trying to let me know the way the game is played here.

"I try to do that for Russ. I might not do it the same way, or as often as Jordan did it to me. But I respected Jordan and he respected me. I know Russ respects me and I respect him. It's not about being a mentor or anything like that. It's just about playing the game the way coach [Ben] Howland wants us to play. We know UCLA is about winning championships. And we'll all do whatever it takes."

Even if it calls for a shot to the chops. *

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