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This Just Cuts to the Quick of UCLA's Afflalo

April 04, 2006|Diane Pucin

INDIANAPOLIS — This will eat at Arron Afflalo. It will cause him sleepless nights. If he could, Afflalo would certainly still be shooting jump shots at the RCA Dome. He would be running wind sprints. He would grab a chair and use it as the opposition so he could guard it man to man, so he could make it submit to his will.

The off-season will be filled with just that sort of thing for Afflalo, the UCLA sophomore guard who takes every Bruin loss, every missed shot and blown assignment, every turnover, every missed rebound, as a personal failing.

It certainly wasn't all his fault, this 73-57 beating by Florida in the NCAA championship game Monday night at the RCA Dome.

Freshmen Darren Collison and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute played as if they'd never seen a basket. Or a basketball. Cedric Bozeman moved as if stuck in sludge. Lorenzo Mata had one possession where he missed a dunk and a layup, and then committed a foul.

But nothing hurt the Bruins more than the unseemly mess of Afflalo's game for the first 30 minutes. Nobody was hurt by it more than Afflalo.

The tightly wound sophomore guard, who accepts responsibility for Bruin mistakes even when they aren't his fault, didn't score a point until he made two free throws with 11 minutes 28 seconds left. He missed his first five shots from the field and didn't make a basket until he swished a defiant three-pointer with nine minutes left and UCLA behind 57-37. He made another 20 seconds later as if he had loosened an invisible harness that had been attached to his arms.

It was, of course, too late, and Afflalo hadn't been able to perform his lock-down defensive magic either. Early in the game Florida's Corey Brewer shot over Afflalo once and drove around him another time and scored on both moves.

Teary-eyed, with his voice breaking and his nose running, Afflalo took the blame.

"I feel like it's my fault," he said. "I had no points at halftime. Clearly I have to work harder for next year. I need to find a way to be a better leader. I need to be a better shooter. I need to be a better defender."

Early in the second half, after Lee Humphrey had left Afflalo behind and made a three, Afflalo stared into the crowd as if searching for his game and mouthed to himself, "Do something." But he couldn't.

The most befuddling Afflalo moment came near the end of the first half with Florida leading 36-25.

Jordan Farmar had stolen the ball and dished it to a running Afflalo. Afflalo put his head down and went right at the basket where Florida's singularly acrobatic forward Joakim Noah stood with his arms waving and his feet dancing. Afflalo's layup was blocked, and Noah kept the ball while trash talking in Afflalo's face.

"That was probably my fault," Afflalo said. "I was trying to get myself fired up, and that probably got Joakim going."

So again Afflalo made himself the culprit. You wanted to hug him, wrap him in a blanket, give him ice cream and tell him everything was all right. At the postgame news conference, UCLA Coach Ben Howland nearly did that, rubbing Afflalo's shoulder as he told the world how proud he was of his distraught guard.

Probably UCLA wouldn't have won even if it had scored off that turnover. But the moment encapsulated all the Bruins' frustrations. Afflalo was beaten to the basket, overpowered and lectured.

In the last seconds of the game Afflalo was on the bench, sitting next to UCLA assistant Ernie Zeigler. Zeigler was wearing a baby blue suit that had seemed bright and optimistic 40 minutes earlier. By the end it only served to draw your eyes to the sad-eyed Afflalo. Again he was staring, just staring. His final line of 10 points, two rebounds, one assist and three turnovers will haunt Afflalo.

"Arron's got more heart than anybody I know," senior Ryan Hollins said. "Arron's in the paint, Arron's playing defense, Arron's taking the big threes, and when we lose Arron cries harder than anybody. If he could go out right now and practice he would."

Brewer, two inches taller than Afflalo, was in part responsible for Afflalo's shooting three for 10 overall from the field and two for seven from three-point range.

"I knew if I stopped him," Brewer said, "my team had a great chance to win. He didn't have a field goal until I don't know when."

Afflalo knew exactly when. "Too late," Afflalo said.

Until the time came for UCLA's locker room to be closed, Afflalo stood near the door and answered every question asked. The hurt was so deep because a team never, ever knows whether it will get this chance again, he said. It was so deep because seniors -- Hollins, Cedric Bozeman, Michael Fey -- will never get this moment again. It hurt so deep, he said, "because I want to be the one out on the floor celebrating with my teammates and jumping all over people" and then added, "if I had done better ... "

Finally Afflalo had no more words. But he still had blame.

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