49ers, Packers look to go from losing seasons to Super Bowl
SANTA CLARA (AP) — The San Francisco 49ers are one win away from accomplishing a turnaround that’s been done only once before in the Super Bowl era.
With a victory in the NFC championship game at home on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, the Niners will become the second team in NFL history to make the Super Bowl a year after losing at least 12 games.
Only the St. Louis Rams have done it, going from 4-12 in 1998 to Super Bowl champs one year later thanks in part of an injury to Trent Green that cleared the way for Kurt Warner to take over at quarterback.
The 49ers (14-3) also can credit an injury to their quarterback for part of their turnaround; the team went only 4-12 last season after Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.
The silver lining to that injury was the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, which led to the addition of defensive end Nick Bosa, who helped transform the defense into one of the league’s best.
“Things have a way of working out,” Garoppolo said. “I always told myself it was a blessing in disguise, the ACL and everything, and yeah, we got Bosa out of it. That’s a pretty good trade-off, I guess. Things have a way of working out, I guess. This ride is crazy. You’ve just got to roll with the punches.”
The Packers (14-3) have also had an impressive turnaround after slumping to a 6-9-1 record last season that led to the firing of longtime coach Mike McCarthy.
Matt LaFleur came in and tinkered with the offense, and general manager Brian Gutekunst brought in key additions such as pass-rushing duo Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith, who combined for 25 1/2 sacks on the season.
There have also been some lower-profile pickups such as Tyler Ervin, Jared Veldheer and Marcedes Lewis that have helped.
“I think he’s done a great job. I think he deserves a lot of credit, him and his staff,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Gutekunst. “There’s been a lot of great pickups, but I think I said this at my locker a few weeks ago, the big-name ones have been fantastic, but it’s kind of the other ones that have been the glue pieces, I feel like.”
Titans, Chiefs on verge of Super Bowl, play for AFC title
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Andy Reid rarely digs into his own past, preferring to stay in the moment or focus squarely on the future. It’s an approach that has served him well during a coaching career that might someday land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Yet when his Kansas City Chiefs faced a seemingly insurmountable hole in the divisional round of the playoffs, Reid caught himself thinking back almost four decades to his final game as an offensive lineman at BYU. It was the Holiday Bowl and SMU had taken a 45-25 lead in the fourth quarter. Just about everybody in Jack Murphy Stadium that night thought it was over, only to watch, stunned, as the Cougars scored three late touchdowns to win the game.
“That kind of stuck in there. You had that hope,” Reid said this week when asked what gave him confidence Kansas City could rally to a 51-31 win over the Texans for a spot in the AFC championship game. “You had that hope. Then it’s the feel of your team. You’re on the sideline, you’ve been down there long enough, you can sense what they’re thinking, where their mind is at. These guys weren’t flinching. Let’s get it right.”
The Chiefs (13-4) got everything right the rest of the way. And the comeback from a 24-0 deficit propelled them into a matchup Sunday with Tennessee (11-7), which has merely knocked off the Patriots and top-seeded Ravens — on the road, no less — to reach the precipice of the Super Bowl.
It will be the first time coaching this deep in the playoffs for the Titans’ Mike Vrabel, but it’s certainly familiar territory to his counterpart. Reid had the Chiefs in the same position a year ago, when they lost in overtime to New England — the Patriots won the coin toss and marched downfield for a touchdown — and he led the Eagles to five NFC championship games during his 14 years in Philadelphia.
“I have done a few of these,” Reid said, “and you know, we try to keep it as normal as we possibly can as far as the schedule goes for the players, so they can get their work done. One thing that changes is how fast the game is. I can tell you from experience, the magnitude, every time you take a step up in the playoffs — it’s single elimination.”
Experience is great. Successful experience is better, and that is where Reid falls short. His only conference title came during the 2004 season, when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl to the Patriots. And who should be on the New England roster that night but a game-wrecking linebacker named Vrabel, who even caught a touchdown pass.
Vrabel may not have any experience in this position as a coach, but has plenty as a player. He lifted the Lombardi Trophy three times with New England before finishing his career — coincidentally — with two seasons in Kansas City.
James scores 31 points, Lakers beat Rockets 124-115
HOUSTON (AP) — The Los Angeles Lakers were determined to start the second half of their season on a high note following a loss that snapped a nine-game winning streak.
They were able to do that by riding a big third quarter to a 124-115 win over the Houston Rockets.
LeBron James had 31 points and 12 assists for the Lakers, who lost to Orlando on Wednesday night.
“We hated the loss that we had the other night against Orlando,” James said. “So we had a couple of days to kind of just reshape, refocus and start the second half of the season the right way, and we did that tonight.”
The loss was the third straight for the Rockets, which tied a season high, and they have dropped four of five.
“We’re just not playing well right now,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We haven’t played well for a couple of weeks. And the only way you can get out of it is play hard, keep your head down and just go forward.”
Kyle Kuzma scored 23 points, and Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope each had 20 for the Lakers.
Russell Westbrook scored 35 points for his fourth straight 30-point game and James Harden had 34 for the Rockets, who also lost three in a row in late November.
Harden is confident the Rockets can break out of their funk.
“Everybody throughout the course of your career has been through some tough times and the only way you can get through them is continue to work and continue to go hard and mentally lock in and just try to be as solid as possible,” Harden said.
James was impressed with the work Kuzma did against Westbrook in the second half when he was held to 13 points.
“Kuz just kept his body in front of him and made him take tough shots,” James said. “He made a couple but Kuz made it tough on him, so that helped changed the game for us.”
Leonard, Clippers rally to beat Pelicans 133-130
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — As disappointed as Clippers coach Doc Rivers was to see his team give up 80 first-half points, he now has evidence that his team can do that and still find a way to win — on the road.
Kawhi Leonard scored 39 points and the Clippers rallied to beat the recently resurgent New Orleans Pelicans 133-130 on Saturday.
“Clearly, the defense didn’t wake up for either team,” Rivers said. “It was one of those games where, at halftime, I said, ‘Guys, first team that plays any defense will win this game.’
“We played defense in the fourth,” Rivers continued. “That’s why we won.”
Lou Williams scored 14 of his 32 points during a dominant fourth quarter for Los Angeles, which outscored the Pelicans 31-20 in the final 12 minutes.
“I feel like I can make 100 in a row once I make one,” Williams said of his fourth-quarter surge. “I feel like I can make anything after that.”
Williams’ 3 with 31.6 seconds left, after Patrick Beverley had rebounded Leonard’s miss, gave the Clippers a 133-127 lead and sent numerous fans toward the exits.
“Very talented scorer — fearless, just goes out there and plays the game,” Leonard said of Williams. “He pushed us to win that game in that fourth quarter. It just gives you relief that you have somebody that also can take over.”
Wetzell, No. 7 SDSU beat Nevada 68-55 to remain undefeated
SAN DIEGO (AP) — San Diego State home basketball games are starting to feel like they did back in the Kawhi Leonard era, when a packed Viejas Arena rocked and the Aztecs reached the Sweet 16 for the first time.
This time, it’s a trio of transfers leading the No. 7 Aztecs back into national prominence. New Zealander Yanni Wetzell stepped up with 17 points and a career-high 16 rebounds Saturday night for SDSU, which got hot in the second half and beat Nevada 68-55 to remain the nation’s only undefeated team.
The Aztecs pulled within one of the best opening streak in school history, a 20-0 run led by Leonard in 2010-11. That team finished a school-best 34-3.
With fellow big man Nathan Mensah missing his sixth straight game with a respiratory ailment, Wetzell had his best game with SDSU.
“I was just that much more extra aggressive,” said Wetzell, a graduate transfer from Vanderbilt. “We were down a couple at half and I knew that as a fifth-year senior I had to step up and try to lead these guys a little. I was just trying to be as aggressive as I can on the boards.”
Wetzell’s only mistake, it seemed, was an inadvertent tip-in that gave Nevada its only points during a 17-2 Aztecs run in the second half.
“Technically he had 19 points; just two for the other team,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher cracked.
Malachi Flynn scored 14 points for San Diego State (19-0, 8-0 Mountain West), and Jordan Schakel had 12. Matt Mitchell added 11 points.
Trailing 35-33 at halftime, SDSU changed up its ball-screen defense and staggered Nevada to send a charge through Viejas Arena.
“Proud of our effort, proud of the the way the guys hang in there,” Dutcher said. “The crowd was incredible. I mean, I can’t imagine a team coming in here and being comfortable playing in this noise. They can’t hear their coaches, they’re trying to call timeout, they can’t hear them calling timeout. It’s just a great home-court advantage when this building is full and rocking the way it is.”
USC completes rally to finish off Stanford 82-78 in OT
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stanford was playing with a spring in its step Saturday, skipping into the halftime break with a 20-point lead after five points in a 10-second stretch before the buzzer.
It ended up being the best thing that could have happened — to Southern California.
Oneyka Okongwu scored 22 points and Elijah Weaver hit a clutch 3-pointer to force overtime as USC rallied from a 21-point second-half deficit to earn an 82-78 victory on Saturday.
Stanford’s late first-half scoring outburst prompted a team admonishing by USC head coach Andy Enfield that was probably coming even if Stanford didn’t get a Jaiden Delaire layup with 10 seconds remaining in the first half and a 3-pointer from Tyrell Terry with one second on the clock.
Enfield’s halftime intensity transferred to his team’s defensive effort in the second half, which ended up making the offense click as the Trojans figured out a way to overcome the Cardinal.
USC trailed 46-25 early in the second half. The Trojans chased down the Cardinal over the next 19 minutes. They owned the extra period. Enfield supplied the fuel.
“After the halftime speech we got from coach, it was time to lock in and play,” Weaver said. “One hundred percent that’s what it was; it was our defense.”
What did Enfield say exactly? Weaver smiled, suggesting it was probably best left behind closed doors. Whatever it was, it worked.
“I used my dad’s deep voice at halftime,” Enfield said. “I yelled very loud and they responded. We beat a very good team. We came out with energy. We had missed so many close shots in the first half and they made shots. Some of the first half was them, but a lot was us.”
Defense shines as UC Irvine tops UC Riverside 69-53
IRVINE, Calif. (AP) — Evan Leonard recorded 13 points as UC Irvine topped UC Riverside 69-53 on Saturday night.
Brad Greene added 11 points for the Anteaters, who held the Highlanders to 28.3% shooting, the lowest mark of the season for an UC Irvine opponent..
Isaiah Lee had six rebounds for UC Irvine (11-8, 3-0 Big West Conference), which earned its fourth straight home victory. Austin Johnson added three blocks.
Dikymbe Martin had 10 points for the Highlanders (12-8, 2-2).
UC Irvine faces Long Beach State on the road on Wednesday. UC Riverside takes on Cal Poly at home on Thursday.
Rodriguez scores 17 to carry San Diego over Portland 77-67
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Jared Rodriguez came off the bench to tally 17 points to carry San Diego to a 77-67 win over Portland on Saturday night.
Joey Calcaterra had 16 points for San Diego (8-13, 1-5 West Coast Conference), which broke its five-game losing streak. Braun Hartfield added 13 points. Finn Sullivan had 10 points.
JoJo Walker had 14 points for the Pilots (9-11, 1-4). Isaiah White added 13 points. Tahirou Diabate had 11 points and seven rebounds.
San Diego faces Santa Clara at home next Saturday. Portland plays Loyola Marymount on the road on Thursday.
Andrew Landry, Scottie Scheffler break away in desert
LA QUINTA (AP) — Andrew Landry and Scottie Scheffler broke away Saturday at The American Express.
Landry shot a 7-under 65 at PGA West’s Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course to join Scheffler atop the leaderboard at 21-under 195, four strokes ahead of third-place Rickie Fowler.
Scheffler had a 66 on the adjacent Stadium Course, also the site of the final round Sunday.
“It’s a tough course. It’s a good track,” Scheffler said. “If you’re not on your game, you can really struggle. There’s a lot of trouble out there, so you’ve got to hit a lot of quality shots to keep the ball in play. Good test.”
Fowler, tied with Scheffler for the second-round lead, overcame two front-nine bogeys to shoot 70 at the Stadium Course. At the event for the first time in six years, he played the Pete Dye-designed course for the time Saturday after only taking a quick scouting drive early in the week.
“I was actually surprised by the green speed early on,” Fowler said. “They were a bit slower than what I’ve seen the last two days, so adjusting to that, really didn’t have anything go in early on until the ninth hole. But I thought I did a good job of hanging around, not getting too far behind.”
Ryan Moore and Chase Seiffert were five strokes back at 16 under. Moore had a 67 at the Stadium, and Seiffert shot 67 on the Nicklaus layout.
Tournament host Phil Mickelson missed the cut by six strokes. The 49-year-old Hall of Famer finished three rounds at 3 under. He eagled the par-5 16th on Saturday in a 71.
Landry lost a playoff to Jon Rahm two years ago at PGA West. The 32-year-old Texan has found something in the desert after missing the cuts in seven of eight starts this season.
“It’s been a heck of a week so far with my ball-striking,” Landy said. “Just kind of one day’s ball-striking, the next day’s putting and putting’s just been here all week. So, we’ll just keep riding it out and see what happens tomorrow.”
2 horses die in 2 days of racing at Santa Anita
ARCADIA (AP) — Two horses have died in two days of racing at Santa Anita, where four deaths have occurred since last month.
Uncontainable and Harliss were both euthanized after breaking their right front ankles.
Uncontainable was injured in a turf race on Saturday. The 5-year-old gelding trained by Peter Miller had three wins in 11 career starts and earnings of $24,890. Harliss was pulled up after finishing seventh among eight horses in a turf race on Friday. The 6-year-old gelding trained by Val Brinkerhoff had one win in 12 career starts and earnings of $23,026.
Of the other two deaths, one occurred on the training track and one was on turf. There have been no deaths on the main dirt surface.
Last year, 37 horses died at Santa Anita including Mongolian Groom, who sustained a fatal injury during the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic in front of a national television audience.