ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - After awhile, you started feeling sorry for them. ''The gritty, scrappy little UCLA guys,'' Bruins senior Kris Johnson called the Bruins. Imagine that, taking pity on UCLA. You might as well bleed for Notre Dame or the IRS.
But Kentucky went up 11-2, then 20-5, then 50-30, with the sort of IBM-ish efficiency you used to associate with, well, the old John Wooden Bruins. And you almost wished for a 10-run rule, or a one-game return of Lew Alcindor in the pivot. Because that was the only way UCLA would have taken out UK Friday night.
''It got to (UCLA) mentally,'' Wayne Turner said. ''They sensed that it wasn't going to be close.''
Kentucky rolled, 94-68. The Wildcats will play Duke in the South Region final Sunday, which the team may not accept as its destiny, but you can bet its fans do. Ever since the East Region final in 1992, the Laettner Game, the last-second overtime loss that sent the Commonwealth to bawling in its bourbon, Kentucky has wanted another shot at Duke.
The heart question
On Thursday, Kris Johnson said, ''If we get past Kentucky, we're going to win it all. Does UCLA have the heart to win games when they don't have much talent? That's always been the question.''
And here's the answer:
Not when you have three seniors and the eighth-grade all stars. Nothing against the three freshmen Bruins coach Steve Lavin was forced to shuttle in and out Friday night. But Travis Reed, Rico Hines and Earl Watson are not yet Walton, Goodrich and Reggie Miller.
Rhode Island 74,
TODAY'S GAMESArizona (30-4) vs.
Utah (28-3), 3:40 p.m.
UConn (32-4) vs.
North Carolina (33-3), 6 p.m.
The Bruins lost their point guard to a blown knee and a key backcourt reserve to malevolent silverware. Baron Davis would have helped against the Kentucky pressure; Hines played, but didn't add much. It's hard to handle the ball when your left index finger is wrapped in a bandage the size and shape of a bratwurst.
And Kentucky was on it, just as the Wildcats had been in Atlanta last weekend. They came out as if shot from a gun. Great ball movement, constant defensive pressure and unsparing inside play. A man's notes on UK's run to 20-5 in the first seven minutes:
Scott Padgett three-pointer; Nazr Mohammed rebound while sitting down, starts break to Allen Edwards, for reverse jam; Turner steal off backcourt pressure, shake-n-bake layup. Jeff Sheppard, three right wing; Myron Anthony baseline 15-footer.
Signs of trouble
You know you're in trouble when the game is just seven minutes gone and Myron Anthony is stoning you with jumpshots. If you missed the Blue-White game in October, this one was for you.
Meanwhile, the Bruins got nothing going. Toby Bailey, who loves the bright lights of March, tried to do it by himself, and missed all seven of his first-half shots. J.R. Henderson, a 6-foot-9 forward trying to play center, had his first three shots blocked by the 6-10 Mohammed. Only Johnson kept UCLA from opting for the Division II playoffs.
Still, it was 40-23 at halftime, and getting late early for the Bruins. Murphy's Team took the disaster-is-good theme as far as it could. Every train runs out of track. Or in UCLA's case, every foot finds its ledge. You didn't know whether to cry for them, or call 911.
Which leaves Kentucky on the road to revenge Sunday. Even the oldest of these Wildcats were more worried about senior proms and a car for Friday night than what happened to Sean Woods, John Pelphrey and the rest six long years ago.
''I probably was playing ball myself,'' Turner said. ''That thing with Duke, that's our fans, not us.''
But you can believe they've heard about it. That's the thing about the Commonwealth: When it comes to basketball, they remember it all. Now these Wildcats have a chance to set things right. Everybody deserves a second chance; not everyone gets it. UK's comes Sunday at 5.
Complete tournament coverage from Associated Press