Sunday, March 20, 2011

UCLA comes up short with victory in the air

UCLA's Reeves Nelson takes a shot against Florida's Vernon Macklin (32) and Alex Tyus (23) during first-half action. Photo BRIAN BLANCO, MCT

UCLA comes up short with victory in the air

Published: March 19, 2011
Updated: March 20, 2011 12:12 a.m.

TAMPA, FLA. — Malcolm Lee closed his eyes in hopes that it would disappear.
It didn’t.

Florida’s 73-65 victory against UCLA in the NCAA Tournament Southeast Regional on Saturday was nearly an hour old yet there was Lee, the Bruins' junior guard, stuck in a corner of a St. Pete Forum locker room chained to single moment, one fatal play.

“That dumb play,” he said shaking his head.

With Florida (28-7) up, 66-65, heading into the final minute of a bruising and at times bloody contest between two programs desperate to regain the national spotlight, Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin struggled to inbound the ball beneath his own basket.

Eventually he lobbed the ball toward teammate Erving Walker, guarded by Lee, near midcourt.

Nearly an hour later Lee could still see the ball sailing toward center court, sailing toward the brink of the Sweet Sixteen, the game, the season, one soft pass floating toward him.

Lee, 6-feet-5 and considered by many the nation’s premier perimeter defender, hesitated then leapt for a ball that skimmed just above his fingertips into the hands of the 5-8 Walker. Lee’s momentum carried him away from the play, clearing a lane for Walker, who stepped up and nailed the game’s deciding 3-point jumper.

“That was pretty much the play that separated us,” Lee said.

For 39 minutes a Bruins team that started a freshman, two sophomores and a junior college transfer had stood toe-to-toe with the No. 2 seed and SEC regular-season champion Gators in a game that saw 10 lead changes.

“We could have easily won this game,” UCLA sophomore forward Tyler Honeycutt said.

“They certainly were in a position to do that,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of the Bruins (23-11).

Bruins forward Reeves Nelson, the left side of his face gouged and bloodied, finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds for his 14th double-double of the season.

Freshman center Joshua Smith also had 16 points despite playing much of the game in foul trouble. Lee added 14 points with Honeycutt chipping in 13 points, four assists, four blocked shots and two steals in what was likely his last game as a Bruin.

Honeycutt is expected to enter the 2011 NBA Draft as early as next week.

Honeycutt launched UCLA’s final attack, sinking a 3-point jumper cut a Florida lead to 66-63 with 2:34 left. Smith made it a one-point game with a lay-in with 1:34 remaining.

A few seconds later Lee and Walker were leaping for Wilbekin’s pass.

“What bit me in my (rear) is when I was thinking too much,” Lee recalled. “My first instinct was go for it and I kind of hesitated and held back because I didn’t want to run into him and foul him, and so I hesitated a little bit.”

That hesitation allowed Walker to come down with the ball. Walker, the smallest player on the floor, then stepped wide open toward the right of the top of the 3-point arc and drained the biggest shot of the game.

“We was having a little trouble getting the ball inbounds Scottie through to me,” said Walker, who scored 13 of his game-high 21 points in the second half, 10 in the final 3:58.

“Malcolm Lee went for the steal and I checked just to make sure I had time to get the shot off, and it was a good look.”

In the final 39 seconds Honeycutt and Nelson both missed open 3-point jumpers. Lee botched the front end of a one-and-one with 26 seconds left. In another poor day at the foul line, UCLA only made two of its final six free throws.

But in both locker rooms there was agreement as to what was the game’s turning point.

“We gave ourselves a great chance there,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said, “down one and went for a long steal, we missed and the little guy, Walker, burned us with it.
"You know we were right there.”

Nearly an hour later Lee was still there, still reaching for Wilbekin’s pass, still chained to that fatal moment.

“I can’t stop thinking about,” Lee said leaning back in a thinning locker room, still wearing his game shorts. “That’s all I’ve been thinking about, all I’ve been thinking about is that play and if I would have got it and gotten the steal, what would have happened?

“I’m probably going to have a dream about it tonight. It’s going to be playing in my head for a long time.”

He shook his head.

“That choice I made was pretty much a life-and-death choice,” he said. “You live and die and learn, I guess.”


Rapid Reaction: Florida 73, UCLA 65

March, 19, 2011 Mar 192:26PM PT
By Peter Yoon, UCLA Report

TAMPA, Fla.—No. 2-seeded Florida held off a feisty UCLA, 73-65, Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum and will advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time since winning consecutive national championships in 2006 and '07.

In a see-saw battle most of the game, Florida finally pulled away late in the second half, outscoring UCLA, 18-10 in the final 6:24. Erving Walker sealed the game with a three-pointer and four of four free throws in the final 1:12.

Turning point:With 6:43 remaining and the score tied at 55-55, UCLA called a timeout to get center Joshua Smith back in the game and ran an alley-oop play for him. Chandler Parsons blocked the shot, then Florida's Kenny Boynton hit a three-pointer. Smith then took an ill-advised shot, missed and Florida's Erik Murphy hit another three-pointer with 5:49 to play, giving the Gators a 61-55 lead--the largest lead either team had until the final minute.

Player of the game: Erving Walker, Florida. Walker led the Gators with 21 points and scored 10 points in the final 3:52. His three-pointer with 1:12 to play gave Florida a 69-65 lead and he then made two free throws to give the Gators a 71-65 lead with 32 seconds to go. He made five of eight shots, including three of five three-pointers

Key stat:UCLA made only three of 13 three-point attempts and the Bruins were one for seven until they started hoisting desperation heaves in the final minutes. Without an outside presence, Florida was able to use its zone defense to limit UCLA's inside game, which produced 32 points.

Miscellaneous: UCLA held a 20-10 rebounding edge in the first half, but Florida crashed the boards hard in the second. The Gators out-rebounded UCLA, 22-15, in the second half. Parsons, Florida's leading rebounder, had zero rebounds in the first half, but had five in the second. Florida, which had no offensive rebounds in the first half, had eight in the second.

What’s next: Florida (28-7) moves on to New Orleans to face the winner of Saturday night’s game between No. 3-seeded Brigham Young and No. 11 Gonzaga. BYU defeated Florida, 99-92, in a first-round NCAA tournament game last season.


UCLA's little mistakes made a big difference

March, 19, 2011 Mar 196:37PM PT
By Peter Yoon, UCLA Report

TAMPA, Fla.--In the solemn silence of the UCLA locker room, about the only thing you could hear were the sounds of tears hitting the floor and players scratching their heads.

The Bruins' season ended with a 73-65 loss to Florida on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA tournament at The St. Pete Times Forum, leaving the Bruins wondering how a game they played so well went so wrong.

This game was much closer than the final score would indicate. It was a see-saw battle most of the way, in fact, with 11 ties and 10 lead changes and UCLA was within a point at 66-65 with 1:17 to play.

But the Bruins made a series of seemingly innocuous mistakes that turned into glaring errors when put under the microscope of a close, well-played game in a pressure-packed environment and sent the Bruins home with no more games to play this season.

The most glaring misfortune came when No. 2-seeded Florida threw an inbound pass toward half court with 1:17 to play and UCLA guard Malcolm Lee took a chance on trying to make a steal. He missed, Florida's Erving Walker caught it, dribbled to the top of the key and swished a three-point, back-breaking basket that put Florida up 69-65 with 1:14 to play.

"Dumb decisions, just little mistakes on my behalf," Lee said. "They took advantage of me gambling at the end. It’s a 50-50 situation and I felt that happened the whole game. Every tiny little mistake we did, they capitalized on it. That’s the kind of game we were dealing with."

The Bruins never recovered from Walker's shot, failing to score the rest of the game. Lee was so shaken up that he missed the front end of one-and-one attempts twice in the final 26 seconds. Lee shoots nearly 80 percent on free throws.

But there were plenty of other plays that will haunt the Bruins until they take the court again in November. Joshua Smith, for instance, had an open alley-oop play out of a timeout, but landed and went up instead of catching and dunking in one motion.

The delay allowed Chandler Parsons enough time to recover and block the shot. Florida picked up the loose ball and Kenny Boynton made a three-point basket that broke a 55-55 tie with 6:26 to play. On the next play, Smith rushed an ill-advised when he was well defended, Florida got the rebound and Erik Murphy hit a three-pointer.

So, had Smith made the alley-oop, UCLA would have led by two. Instead, Florida turned it into a 6-0 run and led 61-55 with 5:49 to play and never trailed again. Before that, neither team had led by more than four points.

"It was a huge play because they got the block," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We were right here, point blank, having a chance to go up two if we score that basket and it was right there. I mean you can't get a better attempt than what we had there."

Smith, who took the loss about as hard as anyone, simply said "I came down and Parsons made a play. He just blocked me. He just made a good play."

There were others. Tyler Honeycutt, for instance, had a fast break layup attempt with 4:28 to play and UCLA trailing, 61-58. He missed, got the ball back and missed a three-pointer.

Florida got the ball, and the 5-8 Walker tried to drive past the 6-10 Smith, bumped into him and threw up a circus shot as he fell to the ground. The ball went in, adding a stroke of misfortune to UCLA's string of mistakes, and Florida had a 63-58 lead with 3:58 to play instead of a 61-60 lead had Honeycutt made that layup.

"I thought he fouled me," Walker said. "I felt a lot of contact so I just tried to get the ball to the rim and I was expecting a call, but I didn't get it and it luckily went in."

A few minutes later, Florida trapped UCLA point guard Lazeric Jones at midcourt and ended up forcing a turnover. The Bruins had handled Florida's trap well the entire game and had only eight turnovers for the game -- seven below their season average.

Florida scored again and took a 66-60 lead with 2:49 to play.

"We kept it close, they kept it close and nobody could get a run," UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. "Just little things starting going their way at the right time and in a game like this, that made the whole difference."

Missed opportunities in transition played a key role in UCLA's loss. According to ESPN Stats and Information, UCLA failed to convert three transition opportunities in the final five minutes and scored on only two of 10 transition opportunities during the game.

"In this game we missed too many easy layups, too many open shots, too many turnovers and bad decisions at the wrong time," Honeycutt said. "I think in a way we gave them that game, even though they earned it, they deserve it, but I think we gave it away."

They did. One little mistake at a time.


Home cooking tastes sour to UCLA

March, 19, 2011 Mar 196:50PM PT
By Peter Yoon, UCLA Report

TAMPA, Fla.--Credit the crowd.

If UCLA needed any evidence to show why the regular season matters, it came Saturday when the Bruins lost, 73-65, to Florida in front of a decidedly pro-Gators crowd at the St. Pete Times Forum.

In a tight game, loud, cheering fans can make a big difference and UCLA found that out the hard way playing only about 120 miles from Florida's campus in Gainesville.

"We basically lost a tight game to a good team at home," center Joshua Smith said. "It definitely made a difference down the stretch."

The thing is, UCLA didn't have to be in this position. Had the Bruins played the regular season with as much vigor and intensity as they had played the last two games, they might have been seeded higher than No. 7 and probably wouldn't have had to travel into enemy territory to face a No. 2 in the third round.

Had they not mailed in their Pac-10 tournament game against Oregon, or sleepwalked through a 3-3 finish to the regular season, UCLA very likely would have played closer to home and most definitely would have played farther away from somebody else's home.

"They earned it by doing well in the regular season," UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. "They got the two seed close to home so that was their advantage and their crowd definitely helped them at the end of the game."

Lesson learned for next year?

"It all adds up," Tyler Honeycutt said. "Where we’re seeded who we’re playing where we’re playing. We have to start off from the beginning."


Loss stings Bruins despite turnaround

March, 19, 2011 Mar 197:21PM PT
By Peter Yoon, UCLA Report

TAMPA, Fla.--This is a loss that will haunt the Bruins for a long time.

UCLA faltered down the stretch of its 73-65 loss to Florida on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum, and nobody in UCLA's locker room said it would be easy to get over.

"It hurts," freshman center Joshua Smith said, his eyes red from tears. "I didn't think it would hurt this bad to lose in the NCAA tournament."

It can be viewed as a victory of sorts that UCLA rebounded from a 14-18 season last year, made the NCAA tournament and won a game, but the Bruins don't see it that way.

"We weren’t satisfied coming out here with just one win," guard Malcolm Lee said. "We’re UCLA, we’re expected to be in the finals or in the last little bit. Although we did bounce back, this one win is just not good enough. We felt like we could have gone farther."

Coach Ben Howland praised his team for improving throughout the course of the season and turning its untapped potential into a winning team.

"I think the improvement we made from last year to this year was enormous," Howland said. "Reeves, Tyler, Malcolm -- they are so much better right now than they were at this time next year."

That's still little consolation for a team that has no more games to play this season.

"Any time you end the season without winning a national championship, you have something better to strive for," forward Reeves Nelson said.


Video: Tough loss for UCLA to swallow

March, 20, 2011 Mar 209:06AM PT
By Peter Yoon, UCLA Report

TAMPA, Fla. -- UCLA played hard, maybe as hard as they had all season.

The scratches across Reeves Nelson's face and shoulder showed that.

The Bruins left everything they had on the court in their 73-65 loss to Florida in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Joshua Smith's eyes, red from the emotional letdown, showed that.

The Bruins played one of their best games of the season Saturday at the St. Pete Times Forum. They equaled a season low with only eight turnovers and that includes three on their first three possessions when nerves and adrenaline were running high.

They won the battle of the boards, 35-32, got balanced scoring with Smith (16), Nelson (16), Malcolm Lee (14) and Tyler Honeycutt (13) reaching double figures and they were within a point with 1:15 left to play.

The young Bruins were eventually done in by a string of mistakes down the stretch, most certainly a product of their inexperience, and that is a lot easier to swallow than it would be had they lost because of a lack of effort and for that, they deserve to hold their heads high.

"Our guys played with a lot of character, a lot of heart today," UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

The No. 7-seeded Bruins left the No. 2 Gators impressed. UCLA outrebounded the Gators 20-10 in the first half, and put a legitimate scare into the SEC regular-season champions.

"UCLA was as good as any team we played all year long," Florida Coach Billy Donovansaid. "I don't think we really had been outrebounded like that at any point and ... we played a very difficult schedule. We were as tested by them as any team we've played all year."

Still, in the end, the Bruins walked out of the St. Pete Times Forum with no more season left in front them and unable to reach the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season.

Here, Howland and some UCLA players discuss the difficult emotions of losing when they played so well, the disappointment of the season ending and the prospects for the future:

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