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Original Issue

Why Mata Matters

After his poor showing against Florida in last year's title game, UCLA's unheralded big man has plenty to prove in Atlanta

LEGEND HAS itthat Ben Howland didn't begin seriously recruiting Lorenzo Mata until the UCLAcoach saw him in a summer league game before Mata's senior year at South GateHigh in Huntington Park, Calif., in 2003. "The way I hear it, he saw metake a charge," says Mata. "That's when he got interested." It'seasy to see how the tale arose because Howland still gets excited when talkingabout the thankless contributions his 6'9" junior center makes. "Takingthe charge is the perfect example of the kind of thing Lorenzo provides forus," says Howland. "It's not fun, it's not always noticed, but it'snecessary."

You've heard ofthe fifth Beatle? Mata is the fifth Bruin. While guards Arron Afflalo andDarren Collison make the clutch shots, forward Josh Shipp turns fast breaksinto dunks, and power forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute provides much of theinside scoring, Mata performs the less conspicuous jobs that have been vital toUCLA's success as the Bruins make their second straight trip to the Final Four.He's often the one who keeps a rebound alive for a teammate to grab, steps outagainst a screen to cut off a drive on defense or harasses an opposing big maninto a missed shot.

Mata excelled atthat last task in UCLA's 64--55 victory over Pittsburgh last Thursday. ThePanthers' leading scorer, 7-foot center Aaron Gray, scored only 10 pointsand--due largely to Mata's defense--missed several seemingly easy shots aroundthe basket. Though credited with only one block, Mata affected many more shotsthan that. "He's very active, and he does just enough to bother you,"Gray said.

The relative lackof attention Mata receives doesn't bother him, just as he didn't mind being theleast heralded member of Howland's first recruiting class, which includedAfflalo, Shipp and guard Jordan Farmar, now with the Los Angeles Lakers. Matawas just grateful to have a basketball scholarship, something he didn't evenknow existed until he reached high school and began playing organized hoops forthe first time. Mata was so green that as a high school freshman he oncemistook a water break for the end of basketball practice and went home.

His understandingof the game and his offensive skills have improved steadily since then--exceptfor his free throw shooting, which is still an abysmal 37.2%--but Mata's mainvalue to the Bruins still lies in his defense. If the Bruins are to avoid arepeat of last year's championship-game loss to Florida, 73--57, in which Matawas a nonfactor (playing only nine minutes), he will have to be an annoyance tothe Gators' Joakim Noah and Al Horford. If Mata gets into early foul trouble,Florida's big men could make short work of the Bruins.

"Lorenzo willbe ready," Shipp said after the Kansas victory. "If we need somebody toget us a rebound, set a screen, take a charge, he'll do it." But who willnotice? "The guys in our locker room," Shipp said. "We'llnotice."



BIG BAD BEAR Mata's contributions often don't show up in the box score, but his sticky D has paid dividends for the Bruins.