It’s a decent wager the UCLA basketball team would rather have faced any club other than Florida in order to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s tournament this past Saturday in Tampa.
There was no way around the assignment, and even if the Bruins were secretly hoping for revenge after the Gators had pummeled the Westwood bunch by a combined 26 points during the Final Four in 2006 and 2007, it had to be under their breath.
Playing before a highly-partisan crowd of 17,771 in St. Pete Times Forum at the Southeast Regional, the No. 2 seeded Gators weren’t going to be denied after 5-foot-8 point guard Erving Walker (game-high 21 points) canned a three-pointer late and a one-point lead.
The hoop propelled Florida to a 73-65 victory, and a chance to play No. 3 seeded Brigham Young University and the nation’s leading scorer Jimmer Fredette, who scored 32 and 34 points in the tourney.
That play altered the course, because had UCLA shooting guard Malcolm Lee (14 points and six rebounds) stolen the ball on the long inbounds toss to Walker, the Bruins could have gone ahead. The bucket gave Florida (28-7) a 69-65 edge, and sealed the win.
UCLA (23-11) played well in the opening half, often denying the Gators second-chance opportunities by outrebounding Florida, 20-10.
The second half was the opposite, as the Gators pulled down 22 boards compared to 15 for the No. 7 seeded Bruins.
What happened was Florida penetrated the paint for easy baskets, including several dunks by reserve power forward Patric Young (eight points with four rebounds).
“We need to do a much better job inside,’’ said UCLA Head Coach Ben Howland after the half. “Their front line hurt us. We have to limit their shots.”
Florida shot 56 percent from the floor in the first half, and finished at 50 percent. UCLA converted 41 percent in the opening half, and made 41.8 percent overall.
That’s not going to cut it against a quality squad like Florida, which is seeking its third title under Head Coach Billy Donovan.
The score after 20 minutes had the Gators ahead, 35-33, and it see-sawed in the second half with neither sustaining a prolonged scoring run.
Florida led 8-6 with 15:53 left in the first half, and all of UCLA’s points were tallied by freshman center Joshua Smith (16 points and six rebounds).
UCLA power forward Reeves Nelson scored eight points with six rebounds in the opening half, and added eight points with five caroms in the second half.
The Bruins used an 11-7 spurt to take a 17-15 lead with 11:40 showing, but the Gators rallied with a 9-6 explosion for a 24-23 edge and 7:40 left.
UCLA went in front, 29-28 with 3:37 on the clock, but Florida went on a 7-4 burst and led by two at the intermission.
It was tied at 39-39 with 17:15 left, and 41-41 with 15:54 showing, however, Florida edged past UCLA for a 52-51 lead and 11:15 remaining.
The Gators then ripped off a 9-4 run and pulled ahead, 61-55, before UCLA small forward Tyler Honeycutt (13 points, four blocks and four assists) nailed a three-pointer with 4:45 left to make it 61-58.
Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, and is a staff writer for diamondboxing.com, and is a columnist for socalboxing.wordpress.com. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.