Wednesday, August 21

[NCAA Tournament]: CRUSHED


In the Bruins' worst loss of the season, UCLA's quest for a 12th national title falls far short as Florida earns its first

INDIANAPOLIS “”mdash; So the road ends for UCLA.

Six rounds deep into the NCAA Tournament.

Five months after the season began.

Four weeks after clinching a Pac-10 title.

Three years to the day after UCLA coach Ben Howland was
hired.

Two days after the team’s most impressive showing of the
season in the Final Four.

And, in the words of Howland, “One national championship
game short.”

So the road ends, in a locker room with hanging heads, red eyes
and few explanations.

So the road ends, at the hands of what the Bruins called the
bigger, better-prepared and more physical opponent.

So the road ends for UCLA, quietly, anti-climatically, in a
73-57 loss to Florida in the national championship game in front of
43,168 college basketball fans at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis on
Monday night.

It’s the Gators’ first national championship in
basketball. The team’s quest for a 12th title will have to
wait until next season, as UCLA’s record in national
championship games fell to 11-2.

In finishing this year, however, the Bruins (32-7) chose the
worst possible time for their worst loss of the season.

Their season-best 12-game winning streak was snapped. Their jump
shots were wayward. Their energy was diminished. Their spirits were
crushed.

What were once interlocking arms on the bench between teammates
turned into hands covering distraught faces.

“It’s so tough for me,” Bruin sophomore Arron
Afflalo said. “We put so much into this. It’s a moment
I wanted us to cherish.”

But it’s a moment that will belong to Florida.

The Gators battered the Bruins inside and buried them from the
outside, building their lead to 20 points in the second half, never
relenting on defense, and never leaving a doubt in both
teams’ minds as to who the better team was in the RCA Dome on
Monday night.

“(Florida) played national championship basketball
tonight,” said senior Ryan Hollins, with a towel wrapped
around his head and a fixed stare that never left the ground.
“It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Florida (33-6) celebrated its first championship accordingly,
taking nearly an hour to clear the court after its dominant victory
on basketball’s biggest stage.

Well after the game, the cheers from the lingering Gators fans
permeated a near-silent UCLA locker room, where, for the first time
during the NCAA Tournament, the dripping water from the showers was
plainly audible.

It was a scene that was eerily familiar to players from last
season’s Bruin team that exited the NCAA Tournament in the
first round.

Except this locker room was a lot quieter.

And this time there was a lot more on the line.

“Last year’s team was good, but I didn’t
honestly think we could get this far last season,” Afflalo
said.

“This team honestly thought we could win the championship.
To come up 40 minutes short after all we’ve been through, it
hurts. It hurts.”

Across the locker room was Cedric Bozeman, having just played
his final game, the lingering pain in his face all but too
apparent.

“This was the national championship,” Bozeman said.
“It hurts a lot more.”

In analyzing where Monday’s game went wrong, many players
didn’t know where to start. Some didn’t even try.

“It wasn’t just one thing,” sophomore point
guard Jordan Farmar said.

“They figured us out,” freshman point guard Darren
Collison said.

“I can’t think of anything,” freshman Luc
Richard Mbah a Moute said.

That’s because what got the Bruins to Indianapolis
mysteriously abandoned them on Monday night.

UCLA’s stifling defense throughout the NCAA Tournament
couldn’t stop the Gators’ dominant frontcourt.
Florida’s Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah went
16-for-29 from the field and combined to score 41 points and snatch
23 rebounds.

“Everything our defense was designed to do, they were able
to go against it,” Afflalo said.

The Bruins’ mantra of not giving up easy shots proved to
be little resistance as the Gators had a clear path to the basket.
Florida sent in more dunks Monday night than UCLA had given up in
the other five games of the tournament combined.

And UCLA’s methodical offensive display from the
Bruins’ victory over LSU on Saturday came to a halt against
an active and tenacious Gator defense on Monday. Afflalo and Mbah a
Moute, who had both been averaging double digits in points in the
NCAA Tournament, didn’t score their first points of the game
until midway through the second half on Monday.

“I think the (Bruins) laid down a little bit and once we
took that lead we held onto it,” Gator center Al Horford
said.

So the road ends, a win and a performance short of where UCLA
envisioned it would.

The Bruins cleaned their lockers out and headed to the bus for
the final time for the 2005-2006 season.

But hanging behind and taped up in Farmar’s locker was a
poster created by Portola Middle School students in Southern
California with the words “We Believe.”

Afflalo had a different final message to UCLA fans, his
teammates and himself.

“There’s always next year.”

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