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…”