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.”