For the second year in a row, Alfred Aboya and his UCLA teammates had their… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Tampa, Fla.
The first time it happened, the tears were so fresh and unexpected, Ryan Hollins draped a towel over his face to hide them.
"It hurts," he said, his words muffled by the cloth. "I can't really explain it."
The second time it happened, the pain had become so familiar, Arron Afflalo didn't even try to mask it, standing in front of his locker as tears trickled down his cheeks.
"It's not enough," he said. "It's just not enough."
Actually, it's almost too much, the UCLA basketball family wracked by the reality that their two best recent hopes for a national championship were stopped by one team in consecutive Final Fours.
It's almost too much to think that, if not for two spotlight defeats to the same starting lineup, the Bruins might have won consecutive titles in 2006 and 2007 instead of continuing a drought that is approaching 16 years.
Lousy, stinking Florida.
Remember them now? Welcome them back. On Saturday in an arena about a two-hour drive from their campus, the Gators will essentially host the Bruins in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
It has been four years, but it feels like yesterday. The players are different, but the nightmare lives, the Bruins' culture unable to escape the specter of the Gators until they can beat them.
"You have no idea," said Lorenzo Mata-Real, who played in both of those losses to Florida. "Those games are going to be stuck with me for the rest of my life."
Mata-Real, who has just finished a third season in the Mexican League, laughed into the phone when I wondered whether the Florida memories are overblown.
"People might say it doesn't matter, but everyone knows it's huge," he said. "There isn't any Bruin I know who doesn't want to finally beat them."
This is not about the current Bruins players, who are all too young to truly understand. But on Saturday those players will be carrying a five-year burden for everyone else.
This is about Coach Ben Howland overcoming the nagging thought that he was twice outsmarted by Florida's Billy Donovan. This is about the Bruins' fans finally moving past the idea that, in consecutive seasons, despite having at least four future NBA players each season, UCLA couldn't win the one game that mattered against the one team that mattered.
Yes, the Florida Gators had future NBA stars Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer for both games. But over the course of those two seasons, the Bruins had future pros Jordan Farmar, Luc Mbah a Moute, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Afflalo and Hollins.
"I was very proud of those teams, and I'm sorry we didn't complete the job," Howland said Friday. "But we didn't."
Halfway around the world, other Bruins still share that sorrow, as evidenced by the e-mail Saturday I received from Michael Roll, who also played in both games and is now playing in Belgium.
"The Florida losses still hurt very badly to this day," he wrote. "I think they will for the rest of my life."
Mata-Real is so burdened with the memory, he said he is going to pull out his old UCLA jersey and wear it all day Saturday. For those of you who don't have such a tangible souvenir, here's a little pregame history lesson. You can drape that towel over your face any time now.
The First Loss
It was the afternoon of the 2006 national championship game in Indianapolis when Howland was given the news. John Wooden, age 95 at the time, had suddenly been hospitalized back home.
"It was stunning, scary stuff," said Howland, who shared it with a team that he had groomed on Wooden's wisdom. "We were all taken aback by it."
While Wooden quickly recovered from what was later revealed as diverticulitis, the young and distracted Bruins never found their rhythm, with one notable kid completely collapsing the pyramid of success.
It was Farmar, who showed some of the cockiness that later irked the Lakers by trying to be the hero, essentially playing the Bruins right out of the game while taking twice as many shots as any teammate. He made only eight of 21 heaves while running mate Afflalo took only three shots in the first half and made only three baskets in the game.
With no outside attack, the Bruins were wiped out inside, with Noah blocking a record six shots and Horford thumping his chest and a bunch of Gators eventually dancing on the scorers' table while being showered with orange and blue confetti.
The final score was 73-57, and the final verdict, from a tearful Hollins, cut even deeper.
"They played as a team, they didn't have one guy just jacking up shots," he said of the Gators. "They stayed together."
The Second Loss
Playing the Gators at Atlanta in the national semifinal game in 2007, the Bruins wore their defensive best, holding the Gators to only 16 first-half shots and no offensive rebounds. Yet at halftime they trailed by six because they missed 20 of 29 shots, including all eight three-point attempts.
Part of the problem was that Afflalo again couldn't get comfortable, leaving the game in foul trouble midway through the first half and not scoring until the final seven minutes.
But also, the Bruins just couldn't get past that Florida swagger, watching the six-point deficit quickly become 16 points early in the second half after two missed layups, one blocked shot, one traveling call and two airballs.
"They were bigger and they were stronger," Mata-Real said. "They just pretty much overpowered us in everything."
Four years later, the Bruins have been blessed — or is it cursed with another chance? While Saturday's game cannot decide a championship, it could soften a nightmare.