Bruins play through pain–and gain

By John Akers, Special to Yahoo! Sports
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – If it wasn't one injury this season, it was another.

And another. And another.

So when practices leading into UCLA's Final Four semifinal game Saturday offered up a knee contusion for center Ryan Hollins and a broken nose for backup center Lorenzo Mata, it was just another day in the life of this basketball program. The Bruins took the news so hard, they put a headlock on LSU and tossed them out of the NCAA tournament.

"This team has gone through more adversity in terms of injuries," said coach Ben Howland, "than any team I've heard of. Any team I've been a part of, for sure."

Injuries missed no one on the Bruins' roster this season. Seven players missed a total of 87 games. Even a Reader's Digest version of them can take awhile.

"Ced [Bozeman], he's playing with a torn labrum right now in his left shoulder, missed eight games, the first eight games of the conference," Howland said. "Ryan Hollins, he was out three weeks with a hamstring. He also returned from knee surgery two years ago, where he had a patella they had to go in and deal with.

"Arron (Afflalo's) had his share of bumps and grinds on his thumb. Lorenzo Mata broke his leg, out for two months. He's had two broken noses. His second was on Monday, thanks to Luc (Mbah a Moute) smacking Alfred (Aboya), who then smacked into Lorenzo. Ryan just got a knee contusion. What day was that? Wednesday. It's always something different. They just keep coming back."

Not to mention another player who might have joined Afflalo and Jordan Farmar on the all-Pacific 10 Conference team if a hip injury had not forced him to sit out this season.

"Josh Shipp is terrific," Howland said. "Josh Shipp is a big-time player who played four games for us this year, had hip surgery – the labrum of his hip, which is a rare surgery. We were trying to get him to come back. He actually made an attempt and played in four games. There was just too much pain, discomfort, swelling, to continue on the season."

Bad as it's been, there could have been more injuries. Howland said it's a miracle that Farmar, the Bruins' point guard, wasn't sidelined following the collision that broke Mata's leg on Jan. 12, in a game against Washington State.

"Anybody else probably would have had an ACL tear," Howland said. "Lorenzo, first of all, has legs like tree trunks. He has tree-trunk legs."

The relatively healed Bruins – aside from the recent injuries to Hollins and Mata – actually benefited from their previous injuries by becoming a deeper team.

"Coach built us to be tough," Bozeman said. "When guys went down, it gave other guys the opportunity to step up."

Nine Bruins logged at least 10 minutes in the 59-45 victory over the Tigers. Mata, playing in a mask, grabbed eight rebounds over 17 minutes.

"He plays good in that mask, too," Howland said. "That mask, I think, gives him a little added boost to be more aggressive. He's not worried about getting hit in the face with a mask on.

"The injuries have allowed a lot of the players that may not have played as much of a role early in the season to get a lot of playing time, a lot of opportunity."

And it has provided an opportunity to put a jackhammer to an image of finesse – that codeword for softness – that had been tagged to the program for a couple of decades now.

"I'm not buying it," Howland said. "I'm not buying that has to be the image of L.A. To me, the image of L.A. is hard-working, good people that play together and are tough and just happen to live in the greatest place in the world to live in."

And the home, perhaps, to this season's greatest college basketball team. The Bruins need to remain in one piece for just one more game.

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