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March 7, 2009
UCLA needs help if it's going to capture a share of its fourth straight Pac-10 regular-season title, but the good news for the 20th-ranked Bruins is that they shouldn't have much problem taking care of their own business.
A win over last-place Oregon in the team's final home game on Saturday afternoon would not only give UCLA a fourth straight win going into the postseason, but it would keep the Bruins alive in the chase for a top seed in the Pac-10 tournament.
While the season has been somewhat of a disappointment for the Bruins (23-7, 12-5) after they were ranked fourth nationally in the preseason, they're still just one game behind first-place Washington in the conference standings going into the regular season's final day.
A win over the Ducks and a loss by the Huskies later Saturday afternoon to Washington State would give UCLA a share of the crown, while the top seed would be determined by tiebreakers affected by other action.
The first part of that equation seems likely to happen, not only because Oregon is in the midst of a dismal season but because the Bruins are playing some of their best basketball.
After sweeping a difficult two-game road trip at Stanford and California, they beat Oregon State 79-54 on Thursday night. Senior Josh Shipp scored 22 of his career-best 27 points in the first half as UCLA grabbed a commanding 43-19 lead.
"Now we have one last game and it's going to be a bit surreal for our seniors," coach Ben Howland said. "It's nice to see the seniors leading the way with the effort and leadership they gave. Josh had everything come to him and he just had an unbelievable half."
UCLA has clinched at least the second seed in the Pac-10 tournament.
Shipp, Darren Collison and Alfred Aboya will all play their final game at Pauley Pavilion on Saturday, leading a senior class that has already won three outright regular-season league championships and reached three Final Fours.
Collison, who had 11 rebounds and eight assists against the Beavers, leads the Bruins with 14.7 points and 5.1 assists per game, while Aboya's 5.9 rebounds are the team's best.
But it's Shipp who has emerged lately, averaging 18.7 points and shooting 58.3 percent from the field in his last seven games.
"I've just been shooting a lot more down the stretch. I'm just being more aggressive," Shipp said. "I just got in a rhythm and was able to knock down shots in bunches."
While UCLA leads the nation in field goal percentage (50.3 percent), Oregon ranks 296th, making just 40.6 percent of its shots. The Ducks also have the fourth-worst field goal percentage defense nationally (48.9).
Oregon (8-21, 2-15) lost its first 14 Pac-10 games before winning back-to-back contests against Stanford and Oregon State on Feb. 21 and March 1. But coach Ernie Kent's team lost its ninth straight road game Thursday night, falling 80-66 at Southern California.
"We pushed the pace and were attacking but just couldn't finish it," Kent said. "It was not an energy thing. I call it a mental toughness thing. If we could have continued to keep the pressure on, things may have been different."
The young Ducks are led by 5-foot-6 junior Tajuan Porter, but they have no seniors, five freshmen and two sophomores among their nine leading scorers.
They lost 83-74 at home to UCLA on Jan. 4 despite 24 points from Porter. Oregon has dropped four straight and eight of nine to the Bruins, and is looking for its first win at Pauley Pavilion since Jan. 30, 2003.