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Kentucky, Minn. head 4-ward 'Real deal' Gophers run past UCLA

SAN ANTONIO — SAN ANTONIO -- The Minnesota Gophers felt snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee a year ago. They heard all the skepticism when they got as high as second in the national rankings this season. And they knew that many thought they were the shakiest of top seeds going into this year's tournament.

But there is no disrespecting the Gophers anymore.

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With an impressive, 80-72, come-from-behind victory over second-seeded UCLA yesterday in the Midwest Regional at the Alamodome, Minnesota will be going to its first Final Four. A team that has a bigger name for a coach than any of its players might finally get the recognition it deserves.

"We are not a fluke," said Minnesota coach Clem Haskins. "We are the real deal."

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Asked if he thought college basketball fans finally might know who the Gophers are, reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and regional MVP Bobby Jackson said with a laugh, "I hope so. If they don't, they ain't got no TV."

It took another incident midway through the second half for the Gophers to find whatever extra motivation they needed. With Minnesota trailing the Bruins 48-41 after falling behind by as many as 10 earlier in the half, reserve forward Quincy Lewis was fouled hard by UCLA's Kris Johnson going to the basket.

To make matters worse, Johnson turned around and got in Lewis' face.

"Now that I think about it, that might have got us going," Lewis said later. "He said, 'What are you looking at? You want a piece of me?' We had read an article that said they were bullies. The thing you have to do with bullies is to stand up to them, and that's what we did."

Along with fellow reserve Charles Thomas, Lewis led the Gophers on a 10-2 run to take the lead. The two sophomores combined for 14 of their team's next 16 points, and the Gophers finished the game by scoring on 15 of their last 18 possessions to run away from the Bruins.

Lewis, who was nearly the goat after blowing two free throws at the end of regulation in Thursday night's 90-84 double-overtime victory over Clemson, finished with a 15 points in 17 minutes, and Thomas had 14 in 21 minutes. Minnesota (31-3) had five players in double figures.

"I think the UCLA game plan was to come in and shut me and Sam [Jacobson] down and they didn't pay attention to the other guys," said Jackson, who played a great deal of point guard with Eric Harris hampered by the shoulder injury suffered Thursday night.

After scoring a career-high 36 points against the Tigers, Jackson had a more typical game, finishing with a team-high 18 points while taking only nine shots from the field to go along with nine rebounds and three assists. Jacobson, who equaled his career high with 29 points in the regional semis, had 14. Forward Courtney James added 12.

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The game plan changed dramatically for UCLA (24-8) when Jelani McCoy, its 6-11 sophomore center who led the Pac-10 in field-goal percentage and was second in blocked shots, reinjured his sternum, which he first hurt in a second-round victory over Xavier. McCoy played only 13 minutes and failed to score.

"We knew this game was going to be decided in the paint," said first-year UCLA coach Steve Lavin, whose Bruins had won 12 straight coming into yesterday. "Having been a Gene Keady assistant like Clem Haskins was a Gene Keady assistant, I knew what they were going to do. We wrote that on the blackboard. But it hurts when your center isn't in there."

Without McCoy, the Gophers were able to get the ball inside on offense and shut down UCLA's inside game at the other end. The Bruins also helped Minnesota's cause by not going to senior forward Charles O'Bannon, who had scored most of his game-high 22 points while UCLA was building its 42-32 lead with 16: 42 remaining.

Except for junior guard Toby Bailey, who finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, the Bruins, who also went to overtime Thursday night, seemed to tire down the stretch. Senior guard Cameron Dollar, whose last-second basket won that game against Iowa State, ran out of steam trying to stop the lightning-quick Jackson. Dollar had seven points -- only two in the second half -- with six turnovers.

"It just wasn't our day," said Dollar. "We were just out of sync, especially in transition."

In truth, it was Minnesota's depth and quickness that tired out the Bruins, who needed both Bailey and O'Bannon to play all 40 minutes. The Gophers go nine deep and, without McCoy, UCLA barely subbed at all. Harris, who led Minnesota in minutes played during the regular season, played just 23 minutes. Eight players played 17 minutes or more, with only Jackson playing longer than 31.

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"I just wanted to give the rest of the guys an emotional lift," said Harris, who has a sprained left shoulder.

Haskins knows that he will need a healthy Harris if the Gophers are to have any chance against defending national Kentucky in one of Saturday's national semifinals at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. "Bobby Jackson is our best player, but Eric Harris is our most valuable player," said Haskins. "We can't win the national championship without him."

That is Minnesota's goal, just as it has been since the selection committee left the Gophers off the invitation list of at-large teams last year. Prior to this season, Haskins gave his players T-shirts with the picture of a mountain and set goals of winning 20 games, winning the Big Ten championship and going to the NCAA tournament.

Even though they are not surprised by their accomplishments, Haskins and his players know how far this team and this program have come. When he came to Minnesota from Western Kentucky 11 years ago, the Gophers were near the bottom of the league and Haskins made a promise. "One day, we will drink the champagne," he said. Asked about it yesterday, he said, "Today we did."

It was an even more remarkable feat for Jacobson, one of four Minnesota players on the team. Jacobson can remember coming to ancient Williams Arena while in grade school, rooting for bad teams on dreary winter nights. Now he has helped the Gophers reach the Final Four. "It's almost unbelievable," he said.

Said Jackson: "It feels really good. When you get snubbed by the NCAA and go to the NIT and lose in the second round, and now we're going to the Final Four, who would have ever thought we'd be in this situation?"

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Certainly not the UCLA Bruins.

Or anybody else who doubted the Gophers.

You know who you are.

Pub Date: 3/23/97


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