UCLA nears Duke's love-to-hate status

PHOENIX, Ariz. – He could've humiliated him.

If Kevin Love was the ogre that many believe, UCLA's 260-pound forward would've swatted Desire Gabou's

layup attempt into the rafters as time expired in the Bruins' 88-78

victory over Western Kentucky on Thursday.

And then he would've pounded his chest.

Love, though, did neither.

Instead, the future NBA forward stepped aside as Gabou drove into the lane seconds after being inserted in the final minute. When the mop-up player released his shot, Love didn't even jump.

"Really?" said Love, when told that Gabou hadn't scored a basket all season. "Good for him. I could've blocked it, but we were up. We were going to win.

"For all I knew the kid could've been a senior. It could've been the last game he ever played. So I figured I'd just let him score a layup in the NCAA tournament."

Gabou said the moment is one he'll always remember.

"I don't know much about Kevin Love," he said, "but I thought that was a pretty nice gesture."

Really, folks. This is the most despised team in America? This is the team that everyone suddenly loves to loathe?

Honestly, why all the hate for UCLA?

The Bruins play a team-oriented, unselfish brand of basketball that relies on strong defense. They make good grades, avoid trouble off the court and exhibit good sportsmanship on it.

Yet on Thursday, there were plenty of casual basketball fans at the US Airways Center that seemed to relish booing the Bruins. UCLA's players said they expect more of the same during Saturday's Elite Eight showdown against Xavier.

"A lot of people are starting to not like us," Love said. "They're calling us the Duke of the West Coast. We feel like the Spartans out there in '300.'

"We don't care who's on our side. It could be us against the world. We're just going out there trying to win."

UCLA hasn't always been this unpopular.

Less than a month ago it was no different than Kansas, North Carolina, Memphis, Texas and all of the other elite programs contending for league titles and a national championship.

But then came the iffy blocked shot call with 2 seconds left in regulation that allowed Darren Collison to make a pair of free throws to force overtime against Stanford. UCLA eventually won by 10.

Two days later, in the regular-season finale, the Bruins claimed an 81-80 victory over Cal when officials counted an illegal, behind-the-backboard shot from Josh Shipp.

The cherry on top, though, came in last weekend's 51-49 victory over Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Photos show that Aggies guard Donald Sloan was hacked across both arms while attempting a game-tying shot as the final seconds ticked away. But no foul was called.

Throw in the fact that UCLA has won five of its last nine games by three points or less, and the Bruins' reputation as one of the country's most dominant teams has taken a hit.

Even coach Ben Howland has denied conspiracy theory chatter about the Bruins.

Still, the situation has caused some otherwise impartial fans to make the Bruins the team they love to hate. Guard Russell Westbrook said he continues to hear media members criticize the Bruins, too.

"That's just how it is," Westbrook said. "The media likes to talk about how we're going to lose and how we can't handle this and that. But they're not playing. We've got to play. We've got to do what we need to do."

Westbrook also pointed out that, even during the games involving questionable calls, the Bruins made a slew of gut-check plays that were overshadowed by the ensuing controversies.

There were Collison's clutch free throws against Stanford and the tear-drop layup he made off the glass to beat Texas A&M. Shipp's behind-the-backboard shot against Cal never would've mattered if not for the double-clutch three-pointer Love swished seconds earlier.

"You can call it luck if you want," Westbrook said. "But I think it's toughness. If we weren't tough we'd be out of the tournament. But we fight down to the wire and get tough in tight situations."

The Bruins (34-3)

know they could face similar predicaments against Xavier on Saturday.

Along with a pair of seasoned guards in Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell, Xavier features a pair of physical post players in Josh Duncan and Jason Love (no relation to Kevin) who won't back down from the Bruins, who feel lucky to be playing so close to home.

These days the Bruins need all the support they can get.

"A lot of people don't like North Carolina," Love said. "A lot of people don't like Kansas because they don't like No. 1 seeds very much. Maybe that's it.

"Maybe it's a Yankees thing. They have the most championships (in Major League Baseball) and we have the most NCAA basketball championships. I don't know what the deal is."

Love chuckled when someone suggested that perhaps he was the problem.

"Me?" he said. "You guys don't like me? I think I'm a pretty likable guy. We all want to be well-liked. I don't think we're that bad."