Gators Get’em Again

TAMPA – Malcolm Lee jumped, his left knee ailing, his chest pounding, the sweat dripping, and he thought he had the ball.

It was there, maybe an inch away, maybe a mile, but it was there.

And then it wasn’t.

And neither was Erving Walker, as Lee slipped to the ground, and Walker scurried past.

The 5-foot-8 Florida point guard caught a desperation in-bound pass over a leaping Lee, dribbled to the 3-point line and delivered the latest Gator dagger into the hearts of Bruin fans.

Walker’s 3-pointer with 1 minute, 14 seconds left dropped into the basket, giving Florida an insurmountable four-point lead, and the Gators advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 73-65 win over UCLA on Saturday afternoon at Tampa’s St. Pete Times Forum.

It was Florida’s third tournament win over the Bruins in six years, and though it did not come in the championship game like in 2006 or the Final Four like in 2007, it was just as painful.
Lee sat at his locker after the game quietly dejected, not outwardly emotional – freshman teammate Joshua Smith sat close by, head buried in hands, eyes bloodshot – and replayed the moment over and over in his head.

“I kind of played it soft, which ended up biting me in the butt,” Lee said. “I hesitated a little bit. It was a bad decision.
“But I would go for it (again), go for my initial instinct instead of hesitating.”

For 38 minutes, there was no hesitation for UCLA.

Two days after nearly coughing up a 23-point lead in a 78-76 win over Michigan State in the second round, there was no up-and-down like the Bruins have shown all season, no rollercoaster, no big lead and subsequent melt down.

They were gritty and tough, seasoned and mentally strong against a fiercely pro-Florida crowd, Gainesville just a two-hour drive away. In a game, it looked like they had become men.

For 38 minutes.

Then Walker cut directly into their souls, hitting the decisive 3-pointer and four more free throws as UCLA’s Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson both missed 3-pointers and Lee missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Thirty-eight minutes of grit and hustle and determination.

Two minutes of misery.

Months of bad memories.

“I felt this was a game we should’ve won,” Lee said. “It’s just really hard when the whole team goes out there and gives it our all. We could’ve played a lot better, but there was no question our intensity was there. It just hurts when you go 150 percent and still come up short…”

No, it was Florida (28-7) that came up short, all 68 inches worth of Walker pushing the Gators past UCLA after backcourt mate Kenny Boynton went down with an ankle sprain with 4:24 left in the game.

Walker had 21 points, including three 3-pointers and 8-of-10 free throws, while Bruin junior point guards Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson totaled just four points in 40 minutes, all four by Jones.

UCLA was forced to look inside, and for much of the game, it worked.

Freshman center Joshua Smith and Nelson each had 16 points and Honeycutt added 13 for the Bruins, who took their last lead with 14:58 remaining and could never build any true momentum.

“We missed too many easy lay-ups, too many open shots, too many free throws, turnovers and bad decisions at the wrong time,” Honeycutt said. “I think in a way, we kind of gave them that game. Even though they earned it, and they deserve it. But I think we gave it away.”

UCLA (23-11) was ultimately doomed by the three things that seemed to pop up at exactly the wrong times throughout the year for the team: A lack of an outside threat to counter Walker, poor free-throw shooting and untimely turnovers.

Exhibit A: Though Honeycutt made 3-of-6 3-pointers, UCLA shot just 3-of-13 from behind the arc, Jones and Lee finishing a combined 0-for-5.

Exhibit B: The Bruins shot just 64 percent from the free-throw line for the day, finished just 6-for-10 in the second half, and made just 2-of-6 attempts in the last 10 minutes.

Exhibit C: With 3:07 left in the game and Florida up four, the Gators trapped Jones just past the half-court line and he coughed the ball up, the Bruins’ eighth turnover, down from the dreadful season average of nearly 15, but particularly damaging.

“We were just trying to push it, force the tempo the whole game, and they were doing a good job of handling our pressure,” Walker said. “But me and Scottie (Wilbekin) got him into a speed dribble, and I came from behind and we got a huge turnover.
“I think that changed the momentum for us.”

It was a momentum swing that UCLA could not reverse, and a game that the Bruins could not pull out.

There will be plenty of second-guessing, even though the future looks bright.

Plenty of soul-searching, too.

It has already started.

“Indecisiveness,” Lee would post on his Twitter account soon after the game, “is like committing your suicide.”

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  • Brent

    UCLA fans should be proud. These kids played tough all game against a very talented Florida squad who could win the title. Could have gone either way but a great bounce back year

  • The Blur

    I’m happy when I compare today’s team with the one that lost to Oregon. Sure we had some lapses, but we played well enough to win. FL made some ridiculous shots, too. That long 3 was obviously a killer, and the shot over Smith was a total prayer. We played pretty good D I thought, and they shot 50%.

    I really hope Honeycutt comes back, but maybe we won’t miss him that much. It seems like he’s capable of taking over, but never does. 12 ppg is hardly irreplaceable. Jones will be healthy, and everyone else will be more mature.

    I also hope Nelson develops some sort of pull-up jumper (6-10 feet.) He’s good for 2 charges and 3 blocked dunks per contest. Just a little finesse would vastly improve his game. Maybe he can give some of that must-dunk attitude to Smith.

    Oh, and for those who are about to bash Howland, please compare today’s team to the one that finished last season and started this one.

  • Josh

    I hate that they lost, but I felt so much better about this loss than I did about the way they played on Thursday, and they won that one. If everyone remains, this will be a top 10 team next season with Powell coming in, as well as the Wear twins. Good bounceback season fellas.

  • Lifelong Bruin Fan

    Nothing to hang their heads over in this game. UCLA played a gritty game, answering little runs by Florida during the game, even eking out small leads at times. The decisive play of the game occurred with the score tied when Smith had his dunk blocked and it turned into a fastbreak 3-pointer by Florida, which was followed by another 3-pointer by Florida after a defensive missed assignment. Basically an 8-point swing in 30 seconds. Yes over the course of the game there was a play here, a play there that didn’t go our way that contributed to the loss too, and I’m sure the guys will replay them in their minds. Lee’s narrow miss of an interception on that inbounds pass will surely be one of them. But give props to Florida–they are a good team that played well especially at the critical moments and deserved the victory. I’m not happy with the loss but felt like we played pretty darn well, probably as well as any game this year except against Arizona. The team showed marked improvement from the beginning of the season and should be proud of their progress. Thanks CBH and players for a great season and looking forward to even greater things next year!

  • Stan

    I agree with Lifelong. Great post. Thanks to CBH for turning this team around from last year. Of course some fans at Bruinsnation wouldnt agree, saying that this team doesn’t deserve to be in the sweet sixteen and that CBH has never won anything and is back on the hotseat. Wow. Nice support over there! Bruins could’ve and should’ve won this game. Yes, dissappointing, but atleast we have a future to be excited about.

  • ucla steve

    This team was a Final Four team that didn’t believe it was a Final Four team.
    A team maybe that believed too much in their own inexperience.
    A team that believed their coach when he said he would be elated with twenty two wins like he hadn’t considered twenty.
    A team whose leaders had never started on a winning team before this season.
    A team even when leadership didn’t crystallize managed to win.

    Regardless, today UCLA played for the majority of the game like they thought they could beat a more experienced team on their home court in the second round. A small victory.

    Eight turnovers, four arguable, three in the first three possessions. For UCLA, overcoming their Achilles seems like a good way to end a good season.

    Coach Howland’s team did an outstanding job of controlling tempo and preventing Florida from developing a transition game, forcing them into a set offense and often difficult low percentage shots. Playing in front of a home crowd sometimes a team hits their shots and even then, rarely like this. Florida shoots thirty five percent from three point range. Today, with few open looks, they shoot forty three percent. Florida shot better from three point range than UCLA shot from the floor. The year Coach Howland gets this kind of offensive production in the second round, which he has never had, may be the year he wins the tournament. Billy Donovan deserves immense credit for motivating his players , getting them up for the game, and it appears recruiting and keeping talent in the system for at least three years. UCLA’s defense, aside from the point guard position, in my opinion was not the problem and came to the tournament. Honeycutt and Nelson both statistically played very good defense.

    In both tournament games Lee appeared to have a tournament gear, pushing the ball up the court and attacking in a way I don’t recall seeing during the season.

    Jones, with a bad hand, shot the ball as many times as Smith against Michigan State. Jones shoots thirty nine percent, Smith fifty five.

    In a close game Tyler Honeycutt took more shots than Smith against Florida and shoots forty one percent.

    Given neither Honeycutt or Jones have been effective shooters from any distance, and that they were not shooting layins and they are
    the two worst shooters/best passers shooting more than our two best shooters (and shooting lower percentage shots), one being the best and largest passing target in the nation, in both tournament games speaks to Smith’s foul trouble but also to poor judgement and inexperience. This kind of Judgement is usually essential for winning a tournament.

    During the momentary zone sets of Florida UCLA did not penetrate enough and did not lob into Smith to exploit it. Smith is our zone offense. I didn’t get the sense players understood this or that Lee, Anderson, and Jones are aware that if a teams zones it works to their advantage with their quickness.

    I never had the sense a UCLA player embodied the imperative of putting the ball in Smith’s hands. The idea of getting the ball to Smith seemed discouragingly casual. Each game had at least a half dozen opportunities where Smith had his man sealed and the guard looked the other way. An excellent way to reduce Smith’s foul trouble is to put the opponent into foul trouble first. UCLA did not execute this principle well enough early with enough urgency to win the tournament.

    Smith didn’t dunk against Florida. While laying the ball in is better than a miss, in the NCAA tournament in a close game it may become consolation.
    A three hundred pound six ten player laying the ball in is good in the way an infield single is good for Albert Pujols or a down parka is for Irina Shayk. UCLA seemed to fail to use psychology to their advantage, failed to capitalize on the pregame preoccupation with Smith and failed to get into the heads of the Florida frontcourt in my opinion. Smith had an excellent game but seemed to be lacking the moxie we saw against St. John’s and the first half at USC. Despite an excellent game UCLA was still a little too soft, a little too nice, and a little too young.

  • BruinPain

    I seem to have misplaced my crystal ball so I have no idea who if any players will actually make the jump to the NBA. That being said, CBH did an excellent coaching job this season after excising the few cancerous players who had been in the program. The team that played neck and neck with a very good two seed Florida team for 38 minutes, essentially on Florida’s home court, bears no resemblance to the catastrophe of last year or the shortcoming from earlier in the season. Every single player and the team as a whole improved its play. I look forward to next year where a more experienced and mature team can make a true legitimate run deep into the tournament. Great effort guys. Go Bruins!!

  • post move

    UCLA needs an all conference point guard

  • Lifelong Bruin Fan

    UCLA Steve–I sense in your writing an underlying frustration that this UCLA team did not quite live up to its potential, but I think your last few words really summed up this year’s team, that it is “a little too young.”

    There’s a Chinese proverb that says you won’t help rice shoots grow faster by pulling them up higher. In other words things take time to mature, and try or wish as you might, this limitation is well nigh impossible to circumvent. No doubt that this year’s team has some promising talent, but there is no substitute for experience. From about the midway point of this season as we began to string together victories, some improbable given our level of play, I wondered how quickly this team might mature to produce more consistent performances and live up to its true potential, and I must admit for the most part I have been pleasantly surprised. Today’s performance was no exception. Could the Bruins have played better? Of course, but they played darn well in my opinion against a good, upperclassman-laden team. Sometimes the margin between victory and defeat is razor thin, as it was in today’s game, and the intangible of experience, combining among other attributes confidence and savvy, will usually prove the difference. Again, there is no substitute for time.

    I agree with one of your main points that over the course of the game UCLA did not exploit Smith quite as much as they could have, however against Florida’s 2-3 zone the soft spot in the zone is in the middle near the free throw line, not on the low block. It’s easier for the low post defender to overplay the wing entry pass because he knows he has someone behind him should they try to “lob it into Smith” as you suggested. One of the keys to beating a zone is attacking the seams, making the zone move, and being able to hit the open shot or penetrating before the defense recovers. Unfortunately one of our biggest weaknesses is perimeter shooting. I’d like to see Smith try to capitalize on the offensive glass during these situations as defensive rebounding assignments are more difficult for a team playing zone. As Smith gets in better physical condition (huge), improves his footwork, and gains confidence in his game, he will demand the ball more and, I am confident, guys will look to feed him. I do agree he should dunk when he can to create a psychological edge but honestly in today’s game I think he was often winded. Even on the play where he got his dunk blocked he didn’t get off the floor too high.

    At any rate, I along with you all am looking forward to what is in store after the team gains another year of maturity and experience.

  • Anonymous

    Proud of the effort, boys!

    (And BruinsNation is a Nestor-infested hell-hole.)