TAMPA, Fla. “”mdash; Sitting in his cramped locker, reporters long having left him alone, a sulking Malcolm Lee took his frustration out on his sock.
In an instantaneous move, he peeled the long garment off his foot, and thrust the cotton heap to the floor.
“I hesitated, man,” he muttered under his breath, to freshman center Joshua Smith, or perhaps more to himself.
Then, with irritation creeping into his voice:
In that moment, the junior guard and co-captain felt responsible for UCLA’s 73-65 loss to Florida in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. He felt responsible for ending the team’s season. And he felt responsible for making his coach 0-3 against the Gators.
He thought he could have gotten that steal, and he was sure it could have changed the game.
The Bruins were down just one point with 1:17 remaining when the Gators inbounded the ball from beneath their own basket. The pass was a lob over the top to Erving Walker, who waited to receive the ball just in front of the half-court line. As the pass went airborne, Lee made a break for it from the perimeter.
But even as UCLA’s best defender jumped with his arms vertically outstretched, the ball sailed over his finger tips and into the hands of Walker.
He pulled the ball down, and with Lee out of position and out of the play, the Florida guard took three dribbles and pulled up for an NBA-range 3-pointer.
When the ball swished through the net, the Gators found themselves up four and would cruise to a victory behind free throws after that.
“Choices,” Lee said. “That’s what this game is all about. Choices.”
UCLA’s season came to an end in the closest of close games. Until the final moments, no team led by more than six. There were 11 ties and 10 lead changes. Every Bruin player and their coach talked about how well the team played, and subsequently, how the “little things” that went wrong down the stretch killed them.
Minutes prior to Lee’s failed steal attempt, UCLA was down four when junior guard Lazeric Jones got trapped along the sideline and turned the ball over. Florida would capitalize with a bucket inside from center Vernon Macklin to extend its lead to six for only the second time in the game.
Florida’s ability to capitalize on each mistake, combined with two missed front-end free-throws by Lee, and one-for-five 3-point shooting in the final minutes did the Bruins in.
That, and a few big shots from Florida.
Of particular note was a circus shot by Walker, the guard who hit the 3-pointer that sealed the game. In the final minutes, the 5-foot-8-inch junior drove into the paint only to come face to face with UCLA’s 6-foot-10-inch center, Smith. Walker had no choice but to shoot a fall-away jumper, and he did indeed fall to the ground as he let the ball go. But that shot too found its way to the bottom of the net, giving the Gators a five-point lead.
“They made some really big shots, and we really couldn’t do anything about that,” Jones said. “We tried to defend as good as possible, and that’s all we can do, make shots tough.”
But perhaps what was most upsetting to players was the realization that they played one of their most complete games of the season and still got beaten.
Thursday evening against Michigan State, this same UCLA team nearly squandered a 23-point lead that Michigan State cut to one. They played 32 minutes of outstanding basketball, then eight minutes that were less than stellar.
But Saturday, UCLA out-rebounded Florida 20 to 10 in the first half, and played better defense in the second half. They again had four players in double figures, and sophomore Reeves Nelson recorded his second double-double in as many Tournament games.
“I think we just gave away the game,” sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said. “Too many mistakes. … It just adds up. It definitely shouldn’t have been that close.”
For a team that has had its effort questioned all year, no one questioned the Bruins on this night.
Smith’s eyes were red after the game. Sophomore forward Reeves Nelson’s shoulder was red from getting scratched, as was his forehead long after the in-game bleeding stopped. Junior guard Jerime Anderson politely asked a photographer whether he had taken enough photos.
The much-maligned Bruins took this final loss to heart, and their coach knew it.
“I’m really proud of these kids,” coach Ben Howland said. “When they got knocked down, they got back up and fought back; not only tonight in this game, but all year long.”
But those kind words from a tough coach didn’t do much to console Lee.
As the clock wound under five seconds, Lee, the outstanding defender, wasn’t on defense. He was standing under his own basket, squarely at the free-throw line, gazing at Florida’s basket, watching the Gators celebrate.
He stood there statue-like for four seconds, hands pasted to his hips. The buzzer sounded and Lee dropped his head, ripping his jersey out of his shorts. Then he headed to the tunnel, on his way to the locker room, on his way back home.
“It was disbelief,” Lee said. “It felt like I was in a dream because we really thought we were going to win this game. And just to see that the other team, their whole crowd just cheering, it just snaps you back into reality real fast. It’s like, ‘Damn, is this really happening right now?’
“Unfortunately, it was.”