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Bruins Are Gator Bait

Florida breaks through UCLA defense to win its first national championship, 73-57. Wooden watches the game from hospital.

April 04, 2006|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS — The rafters of Pauley Pavilion will go undisturbed.

UCLA, which exceeded expectations with a team dependent on freshmen and sophomores, had won 12 consecutive games to reach Monday's title game of the NCAA men's basketball tournament but ultimately came up short, losing to the Florida Gators, 73-57, in front of an RCA Dome crowd of 43,168.

They hang only championship banners in the home of the Bruins. But there will be no 12th banner this season.

Instead of the title going to the Bruins, it went to Florida for the first time, the state as well as the school. The Gators are the first Division I men's basketball champions from Florida.

It was only the second time UCLA has lost an NCAA championship game. The Bruins were beaten in 1980 by Louisville, also in Indianapolis.

The high standard of excellence that reaches to the ceiling of Pauley Pavilion was set by coach John Wooden, who won the first 10 of those banners.

Wooden watched Monday's night's game from a hospital bed, according to his daughter, Nan Muehlhausen.

The 95-year-old coach was taken to a hospital Sunday suffering from diverticulitis, according to his daughter. Wooden's condition is not considered serious and it is expected that he will be released from the hospital today or tomorrow.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland said he informed his players of Wooden's condition before the game.

"That didn't affect our performance," Howland said.

"We were pretty focused on the game," UCLA guard Arron Afflalo said. "But our heart and everything we do on the floor is always a tribute to [Wooden] whether he's healthy or not."

Wooden's teams, while always fundamentally sound, are best remembered for the spectacular offensive skills of Lew Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Bill Walton.

This UCLA squad took a far different approach under Howland. Without the benefit of an explosive offensive player, Howland stressed defense -- basic man-to-man defense -- demanding discipline and toughness to make it work.

And it did work for much of the season. As the wins mounted and the players bought into their coach's system with increasing confidence and enthusiasm, UCLA became a sometimes impenetrable force, holding 10 of their previous 11 opponents to 60 points or less.

But on Monday night, the Bruins (32-7) ran into an even more dominating force.

Led by 6-foot-11, 227-pound forward Joakim Noah, the Gators held the Bruins to 36.1% shooting from the field, limited Afflalo, UCLA's leading scorer this season, to 10 points (three for 10 from the floor) and blocked 10 shots, six by Noah. UCLA turned the ball over 12 times, doubling Florida's total.

"Maybe I was trying to hunt the ball too much and, as a result, took myself out of the flow," said Afflalo, who was scoreless in the first half.

Florida was in the flow all night, spreading out the floor and involving its players enough to enable four of them to reach double figures in scoring, led by Noah's 16. The Gators' three-point specialist, Lee Humphrey, made four of eight attempts from beyond the three-point arc. And guard Taurean Green did a superlative job in dishing out the ball, finishing with eight assists.

But numbers alone don't tell the story of this game. They can't convey the quickness the Gators (33-6) showed in breaking through the vaunted Bruin defense. Or the skill they showed in running the court well enough to beat the Bruin defenders down the court time and again, resulting in uncontested shots.

The numbers can't depict the intimidation that the Bruins appeared to feel as they drove to the basket seemingly looking over their shoulders, waiting for yet another long arm of a Gator, stretching to block a shot.

"He's just long," Afflalo said of Noah. "He has the ability to change shots if he's not blocking them. He plays with a lot of energy."

"They played as a team and if you took away one thing they would just go to something else," UCLA center Ryan Hollins said.

Farmar was more successful than any of his teammates at breaking through the Gator defense.

He had a game-high 18 points. But even he struggled, making only eight of 21 from the floor, including only one of eight from three-point range.

"Everybody was talking about their defense," Florida forward Corey Brewer said. "We proved who is the best defensive team and we're national champions."

While the Bruin underclassmen can vow to mount another run at a national championship next season, there will be no more seasons for Hollins or fellow senior Cedric Bozeman.

After the game, Hollins sat in the middle of the UCLA locker room with tears in his eyes and a towel over his head.

"It hurts," he said.

Then he held out his jersey with the letters UCLA on the front.

For Hollins, there is pride over his years of service and an outstanding season.

Pride, but no banner.

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