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SCOOP DREAMS: _Bruins' team unity important before NCAA Tournament and after_

Freshman center Joshua Smith sits in the UCLA locker room after the Bruins’ 73-65 loss to Florida. A win against Florida would have taken the Bruins to the Sweet 16.

By Eli Smukler

March 19, 2011 9:43 p.m.

TAMPA, Fla. “”mdash; There’s really only one way for an NCAA Tournament run to end well.

For each of the other 67 losing teams in every one of the 67 games played across the country, there is a scene like one deep within the St. Pete Times Forum on Saturday evening.

Joshua Smith, the giant freshman center who caused so many late nights for so many game-planning coaches this year, sat hunched in front of his locker with red eyes of his own.

For UCLA’s youngest player, a 73-65 defeat to Florida in his second Tournament game was devastating. If he had just hit those two free throws, if he had just pump faked before going for that final dunk ““ maybe things would have been different. Maybe this run would have never ended.

Instead, the Bruins ran out of steam despite playing a 40-minute basketball game with the intensity of a Mama Bear separated from her cubs.

Just a day ago, Smith stood in the same place, smiling coolly as he leaned against the same locker, surrounded by a hoard of national media three levels of reporters deep. Now, he could barely hold his head up, eyes arched upward like a puppy that just chewed up the living room couch.

“I just felt like I let my team down,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do.”

The Bruins really didn’t play that badly. In fact, it was probably one of their two or three best games of the season.

Nevertheless, Smith’s apology echoed around the room.

“I feel like I could’ve been out there helping my teammates more,” said junior guard Lazeric Jones, who spent the whole game in foul trouble until he fouled out in the final minute.

Junior guard Malcolm Lee’s passion for defense changed the team’s very identity mid-season. Now that it was over, however, he was heartbroken about missing a steal in the final throes of the game that led to a Florida 3-pointer.

“On my behalf, I didn’t come through for my teammates,” he said.

Redshirt freshman center Anthony Stover provided valuable backup minutes on both ends of the floor against Florida’s tough bigs, but on each of the three occasions he went to the line, he clanked the ball on the rim.

“I just wish I could shoot free throws right now,” he said as he looked out from his corner of the room to the bowed heads and quiet stares of his teammates.

It was a painful moment for them all, but it was a moment they shared.

A little over a year ago, a UCLA basketball team sat in the Staples Center locker room dealing with its own finality.

The Bruins had been bounced from the Pac-10 Tournament with the only consolation being the short bus ride home from downtown Los Angeles to Westwood.

One senior admitted he was happy he didn’t have to worry about trying to fix the team’s problems anymore. Two underclassmen joked with each other about another senior’s lackluster shooting percentage.

In the coming months, two of the players that were supposed to return to spring workouts opted to leave the school.

In the 12 months since that time, a completely different UCLA team won 23 games, nine more than the previous season, and came literally within inches of a berth in the Sweet 16.

But more impressive was the group of players and their coaches who came together to put a program on the right path once more.

The notion of chemistry is important in all team sports, but in basketball it means the world.

This has been a team led equally by its many parts. This season, the Bruins have shown how their unity helps to win games.

Sometimes, it helps with the losses too.

Smukler co-hosts “Overtime with Daily Bruin Sports,” which airs every Monday at 6:30 p.m. on UCLAradio.com. E-mail him at [email protected].

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