Ga­tors Rewind Show, Play It Again

In a Re­match, Florida Is Too Much for UCLA

The Washington Post Sunday - - Spring Training - By Eric Pris­bell

AT­LANTA, March 31 — As if the clock were turned back one year, UCLA walked onto col­lege bas­ket­ball’s largest stage again Satur­day and con­fronted Florida’s same start­ing lineup that thor­oughly em­bar­rassed the Bru­ins in last sea­son’s na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

This year’s na­tional semi­fi­nal turned into not merely a re­match, but very much a re­play. Af­ter over­com­ing early of­fen­sive strug­gles, the Ga­tors were at their scin­til­lat­ing best in the sec­ond half Satur­day, cruis­ing to a con­vinc­ing 7666 vic­tory to ad­vance to Mon­day’s ti­tle game against Ohio State.

The Ga­tors, a col­lec­tion of stars who put NBA dreams on hold last spring, also moved within one vic­tory of be­com­ing the first re­peat na­tional cham­pion since Duke ac­com­plished the feat in 1991 and ’ 92. They are the first cham­pi­ons to re­turn to the ti­tle game since Ken­tucky in 1998.

In the run- up to Satur­day’s game, nei­ther team em­braced the no­tion of a re­match. Play­ers from both teams in­sisted their teams were changed and im­proved from a year ago. As it turned out, both may be im­proved but in many ways un­changed from a year ago.

The de­fen­sive- ori­ented Bru­ins ( 30- 6) still have a dif­fi­cult time gen­er­at­ing enough of­fen­sive to beat a multi- faceted team such as the Ga­tors ( 34- 5), who have an abun­dance of weapons both on the in­te­rior and the perime­ter. UCLA com­mit­ted only one turnover in the first half Satur­day, but the Bru­ins trailed by six points at the break be­cause they made just 31 per­cent of their shots.

The sec­ond half turned into an as­sort­ment of Florida three- point­ers and fol­low- up dunks. Less than five min­utes into the sec­ond half, Florida’s Joakim Noah, the most out­stand­ing player of last year’s Fi­nal Four, pushed UCLA’s Lorenzo Mata out of the way and con­verted a re­sound­ing fol­low- up dunk that gave Florida an 11point lead that only grew.

UCLA took away Florida’s po­tent inside game for half of Satur­day’s game, hold­ing Noah and Al Hor­ford with­out a field goal at­tempt in the first half. That forced the Ga­tors to rely on perime­ter shoot­ing, much like they did in the Mid­west Re­gion fi­nal vic­tory over Ore­gon.

If it was not Corey Brewer sink­ing three- point­ers Satur­day, it was Lee Humphrey, who had seven threes in the Ore­gon vic­tory. On Satur­day, the sharp­shooter made three crit­i­cal three- point­ers in the sec­ond half Satur­day to stretch the lead to 17 points. Twelve months ago, Humphrey made two crit­i­cal three- point­ers in the sec­ond half of Florida’s 16- point vic­tory over UCLA in the na­tional ti­tle game.

Through four NCAA tour­na­ment games, UCLA had not al­lowed more than 55 points. On Satur­day, UCLA held Florida, which led the na­tion in field goal per­cent­age, with­out a field goal for the first 7 min­utes 28 sec­onds of the game. But UCLA’s vaunted de­fense, con­sist­ing of dou­ble teams, flail­ing arms and on- the­floor dives, met its match, and for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive sea­son.

Coach Billy Dono­van will coach in his third na­tional cham­pi­onship game this decade. With a vic­tory Mon­day, Dono­van would join Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski as the only coaches to win back- to- back ti­tles since John Wooden more than three decades ago. Even as spec­u­la­tion over the va­cant Ken­tucky job con­tin­ues to shadow Dono­van, the 41- year- old has re­mained res­o­lute in his fo­cus and prepa­ra­tion.

Much of the at­ten­tion in Satur- day’s game cen­tered on Florida’s front court, but a crit­i­cal matchup was ex­pected on the perime­ter be­tween the ath­letic Brewer and UCLA’s sea­soned scorer, Ar­ron Af­flalo. But Af­flalo took an early seat on the bench af­ter pick­ing up two fouls in the game’s first two min­utes and was never quite the same.

UCLA Coach Ben How­land chose to rein­sert Af­flalo a few min­utes af­ter the ini­tial foul trou­ble, only to see the ju­nior get his third foul while try­ing to stop Brewer from pen­e­trat­ing. Af­flalo, who was widely con­sid­ered the most clutch player in the Pa­cific- 10, had trou­ble even stay­ing the floor Satur­day and fouled out af­ter scor­ing 17 points.

De­fen­sively, UCLA em­ployed a dou­ble team when Florida’s in­te­rior play­ers caught the ball near the bas­ket. That’s how the Bru­ins forced Noah to travel early in the game, prompt­ing How­land to pump two fists in the air as if the game were a street fight. Most of the time, Florida was dis­ci­plined enough of­fen­sively to kick the ball back to the perime­ter for open three- point looks, but the Ga­tors missed their first five at­tempts.

UCLA’s of­fense was no more aes­thetic. The Bru­ins held an early lead even though they made two of their first 10 field goal at­tempts. On one pos­ses­sion, UCLA was so fraz­zled that How­land walked sev­eral feel onto the floor to em­phat­i­cally mo­tion for a time­out. No of­fi­cial saw him.

UCLA’s Josh Shipp, who missed all but four games last sea­son with a hip in­jury, pro­vided a scor­ing boost in the first half, mak­ing six of UCLA’s nine field goals in the half. Shipp’s jump shot gave the Bru­ins a one- point lead with 7: 20 re­main­ing be­fore Florida went on a 13- 2 run. Dur­ing the Ga­tors’ spurt, Brewer made two three- point­ers on his way to­ward fin­ish­ing the half with 15 points.


Chris Richard dunks over Al­fred Aboya dur­ing a win that gave Florida a chance to re­peat as na­tional cham­pion.

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