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Memphis, UCLA underclassmen show no fear

Youngsters the reason both teams are battling for Final Four berth
NCAA GONZAGA UCLA BASKETBALL
Jordan Farmar, an 18-year-old sophomore from Los Angeles, is just one of the UCLA underclassmen who is cool under pressure.Jeff Chiu / AP
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

In the middle of the frenzied final moments of UCLA's 73-71 win over Gonzaga on Thursday were a guard and a forward in their late teens.

The guard, Jordan Farmar, is an 18-year-old sophomore from Los Angeles with gelled hair and the articulate smoothness of a politician. The forward, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, is a 19-year-old freshman from Cameroon with a lilting accent and a pleasant, calm demeanor.

With the seconds ticking down, Farmar stole the ball from Gonzaga's J.P. Batista, turned and hit Mbah a Moute with a perfect pass near the basket. Mbah a Moute laid it in to give UCLA the lead with 8.6 seconds left, then raced down and hurled himself to the floor to tie up a loose ball, giving the Bruins the possession and the game.

All season, UCLA has ridden its underclassmen, and it is something the No. 2 seed Bruins have in common with their opponent, top-seeded Memphis, in Saturday's Oakland Region final, which tips off at 7:05. The Tigers defeated the Bruins, 88-80, in the third game of the season, the semifinals of the preseason National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden.

With notable exceptions -- Memphis senior Rodney Carney and UCLA senior Cedric Bozeman -- the Tigers and Bruins will rise and fall on the strength of talented but mercurial players who only recently were in high school.

"None of us really show that we're afraid," baby-faced Memphis guard Antonio Anderson said. "As of now, none of us were never nervous. That's why everybody says we don't play like we're freshmen."

Aside from Carney, who is touted as an NBA lottery pick -- UCLA Coach Ben Howland predicted he would win next year's slam dunk contest -- Memphis Coach John Calipari runs out a rotation that includes six freshmen and three sophomores. As Memphis has advanced through the tournament, some have wondered whether lack of experience might ultimately be a factor in pressure games.

Calipari, in fact, acknowledged Friday that it is. But he said the Tigers are able to neutralize it by continuously rotating in players. "What I would tell you is we have so many guys, if someone's not playing well, you're not going to see [him] for a very long time 'cause I'll just go with somebody else. We've done it all year."

Howland said the Tigers feature "at least three, four NBA players minimally. It could be five." Yet no Memphis player, including Carney, averaged more than 27 minutes this season. (Four UCLA players averaged more than 29.) Sophomore Darius Washington Jr., one of the best guards in the country, averaged just over 26. During the tournament, Washington has been brilliant at times, erratic at others, and Calipari frequently has replaced him with 5-foot-10 sophomore Andre Allen.

The Bruins, meantime, rely on guards Farmar and 6-5 sophomore Arron Afflalo, another Los Angeles product. Howland calls the pair the best back court in the country. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been Mbah a Moute -- a player who was recruited intensely only by UCLA, South Carolina and Virginia Tech -- as the anchor for the Bruins' inside game, averaging nine points and 8.1 rebounds.

Mbah a Moute had six points in the last three minutes against Gonzaga. The comeback showcased UCLA's young players. Farmar hit a running jumper to bring UCLA within three with 49 seconds left. Seconds later, he made the steal and the pass to Mbah a Moute, who then had the presence of mind to rush back up the court.

"The most exciting play of the game was Luc diving on the floor for the ball from behind," Howland said. "That really characterized the comeback last night, that one sequence -- not only the steal, [but] the finish, the dive on the floor for the ball."

UCLA brought out six players, including Bozeman, the senior, to meet the media Friday. But Farmar did most of the talking, his teammates deferring to his leadership and poise as he explained how the Bruins planned to take on Memphis, a team that drubbed them in November.

"We're completely different," Farmar said. "We've undergone so much growth and maturation throughout the season that it's not going to even be close from our end. I'm not expecting it to be the same from their end either. They've probably grown, changed, matured, just like we have."

Howland said he believed the electricity of Thursday's win would carry over into the final. He dismissed the idea that the Bruins might be drained. But he said the 88-80 Memphis win on Nov. 23 was "not indicative of the game. They crushed us."

"We're going to need to be better, a lot better, to have a chance to beat Memphis," Howland said.