UCLA freshman center Joshua Smith sits in the locker room after the Bruins'… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
From Tampa, Fla. — A kid's face again is buried in a blue jersey. That jersey again is pulled down to reveal eyes soaked red.
A tiny locker room again is buried in quiet grief. Its stuffy heat again is pierced by the words of kids struggling to their feet to take the blame.
Stop me if you've heard this before. You know what? Stop me even if you haven't.
For the third time in six years, the UCLA Bruins were knocked out of the NCAA tournament by the Florida Gators on Saturday, and I swear, if I have to face one more crying child in a room surrounded by chomping arms. . . .
2011 NCAA men's tournament interactive bracket
Yes, the Bruins were closer this time, finally whittling the margin beneath double figures, losing, 73-65. And, yes, at least it didn't cost them the national championship or a chance to play in the national championship game.
But no, in some ways, this time was worse, as awful as that huge red scrape under Reeves Nelson's eye looked, as painful as that long red scratch on his left shoulder felt.
In some ways, this time was worse because, this time, the Bruins had a chance. In those Final Four games against Florida in 2006 and 2007, they were outclassed from the opening tip, but Saturday they spent most of the afternoon slugging steadily toward what would have been their best victory in years.
Until the third-round tussle became a 15th-round knockout.
"We were right there, we had it in our hands," guard Lazeric Jones said.
Like the ball that popped out of Jones' mitts in one of several key blunders down the stretch, the Bruins watched it all squirt into oblivion under a stampede of jersey-popping, finger-waving, dancing Gators.
Yeah, sigh, I guess we've seen that before too.
"We gave it away," Tyler Honeycutt said, and that's something no former Bruin has ever said after a Gators game before, but he's right.
In bumping shoulders and trading scrapes with a Florida team playing in front of a raucous Gators crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum, UCLA played its best game of the season until the final half-dozen minutes. Then the Bruins gave it away because they weren't mature enough, or savvy enough, or fit enough to keep it.
"We had a chance to win, and that's all you can ask for," Coach Ben Howland said. "But, you know, we're still learning."
They gave it away, first, with giant Joshua Smith's fatigue.
With 6:33 remaining and the score tied at 55-55, Howland diagrammed an alley-oop play during a timeout. The alley was perfect, but Smith was too weary for the oop.
He leaped, caught the ball, returned to earth, uneasily leaped again, and his dunk attempt was blocked away by Florida's Chandler Parsons. Two quick three-pointers later, and the Gators led by six.
If the 6-foot-10 Smith were stronger, he easily finishes that slam. He lost 50 pounds last summer, but he still weighs about 330, and agrees that he needs to lose more.
"I'm not going to lie, I was fatigued out there," said Smith, who was the player weeping in the UCLA locker room. "I let my team down today."
He wasn't the only one, the Bruins also giving it away with Jones' tentativeness.
With UCLA trailing by four and 3:07 left, Jones lost the ball out of bounds while being tied up by two defenders. Moments later the Gators led by six.
"I should have called time out," Jones said later. "We were right there; that play really hurt us."
Finally, UCLA gave it away with Malcolm Lee's bravado.
With UCLA trailing by one with 1:14 remaining, Lee attempted to wrestle away an inbounds pass to Gators guard Erving Walker. Lee lost the fight, fell behind Walker, and the Florida kid instantly nailed an open three-pointer to essentially clinch the victory.
Said Howland: "You can go for it, but you can't take yourself out of the play."
Said Lee: "Oh, I would go for it again, I would just go harder."
You can cringe at their frailties, but you have to love their faith, these kids who Howland is slowly carving into what could be another great team. In one year, this group with no seniors improved from 14 to 23 wins, including an NCAA tournament victory. Only the inconsistent Tyler Honeycutt is expected to leave for the NBA, while joining the team next season will be the towering, transferring Wear twins from North Carolina and touted high school guard Norman Powell from San Diego.
This team is missing a floor leader, but the stage has been set for someone like Lee to emerge. This team has also been missing a crunch-time scorer, and maybe a stronger Smith can fill that role.
Unlike his last several tournament teams, which were quickly depleted by graduation or the NBA, Howland can actually use this loss to teach and grow. For the first time in a couple of years, the coach walked away from March with some excitement in his voice for October.
"Next year we have a chance to be pretty good," said the coach who rarely makes those kind of proclamations.
With Florida not on the schedule, they are already off to a great start.