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UCLA is bitten by Florida again, 73-65

Attempted steal by Malcolm Lee backfires and turns into the key play in the Gators' third-round NCAA victory.

March 19, 2011|By Ben Bolch
  • UCLA center Anthony Stover and forward Reeves Nelson (22) double-team Florida forward Erick Murphy during their NCAA tournament third-round game on Saturday afternoon in Tampa, Fla.
UCLA center Anthony Stover and forward Reeves Nelson (22) double-team… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tampa, Fla.

The ball, and the game, was his for the taking.

Malcolm Lee watched the inbounds pass from Florida's Scottie Wilbekin sail into the air with UCLA trailing its postseason nemesis by one point and 1 minute 17 seconds left.

Lee judged the flight of the ball, the Bruins guard figuring it might fall short of intended target Erving Walker but wanting to avoid a collision with his Gators counterpart.

"I didn't want to foul him going for it just to put him on the line," Lee said, "so I kind of played it soft, which I think kind of ended up biting me in the butt because I hesitated a little bit to go for it. It was just a bad decision."

Bill Plaschke: Bruins let victory slip from hands, but they're learning fast

Lee went for the steal but missed, his momentum carrying him near midcourt. Walker collected the ball, dribbled ahead and, after checking to make sure Lee was still behind him, pulled up for the three-pointer that helped secure Florida's 73-65 victory in a NCAA tournament third-round game Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum.

With one flick of Walker's wrist, the second-seeded Gators (28-7) had knocked the seventh-seeded Bruins (23-11) out of the postseason for the third time in six years, a dark final chapter in a bounce-back season.

Lee lingered in dismay near the free-throw line after the final buzzer, his hands planted on his hips. His late gamble was hardly the only culprit for UCLA in a taut, back-and-forth affair in which neither team led by more than four points until the final six minutes.

"We missed too many easy layups, too many open shots, too many free throws, [had] turnovers and bad decisions at the wrong time," said Bruins sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt, who had 13 points but made only four of 14 shots. "You know, in a way we kind of gave them that game, even though they earned it."

UCLA missed four free throws in the final 9:16, including two by Lee on the front end of one-and-one opportunities. Junior guard Lazeric Jones was trapped along the sideline and lost the ball out of bounds with 3:07 left.

And, in another disconcerting development, the biggest man on the court had his shot swatted by a player 100 pounds lighter. With the score tied at 55-55, UCLA Coach Ben Howland designed a play for 305-pound freshman center Joshua Smith to dunk an alley-oop pass.

But Smith collected the lob and planted his feet on the floor before elevating toward the basket. That allowed Florida forward Chandler Parsons, who had been late rotating over, the extra time he needed to recover and block Smith's shot.

"That was a huge play," Howland said.

Kenny Boynton made a three-pointer on the Gators' ensuing possession, giving them the lead for good on the way to securing a spot in a regional semifinal against third-seeded Brigham Young.

Walker also stepped up by scoring 10 of his 21 points in the final 3:58, including a shot he somehow propelled into the basket while falling backward after bouncing off Smith.

UCLA kept the pace to its liking for most of the game, refusing to let the quick Gators speed a turnover-prone team into excessive unforced errors. The Bruins also continually worked the ball inside to Smith (16 points) and sophomore forward Reeves Nelson, who had 16 points, 11 rebounds and one bloody scratch on the left side of his face.

But Florida was the aggressor in the second half, securing eight offensive rebounds after being shut out in that category in the first 20 minutes. The Gators had a 35-33 lead at the half.

"They were getting loose balls, they were getting putbacks," said Smith, his voice slow, his eyes red. "I mean, it takes five of us to box out."

Without a senior on its roster, UCLA's starting five is expected to look roughly the same next season. The only player likely to depart is Honeycutt, who said he would decide whether to declare for the NBA draft in the coming weeks.

Smith committed to returning and Nelson intimated he was leaning toward coming back, with his little brother Raymond joining the UCLA football team. Asked about his future, Lee said he wasn't thinking about anything except the loss.

"It was just a few plays here and there," Lee said. "That dumb play on me trying to go for a steal out of bounds, I came up short and Walker hit a three. That was pretty much the play that separated us."

Would he go for the steal again?

"Yeah," he said. "I would just go for it, my first initial instinct, just go after it instead of hesitating."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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