Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Bruins Vow to Fix Mistakes, Return to Final

By The Associated Press
Beth Harris

Defense got UCLA to the national championship game after an 11-year drought. Even though it also proved to be their undoing, the young Bruins vowed to fix their mistakes and make a quick return trip.

The Florida Gators spent Tuesday celebrating their 73-57 victory in the NCAA title game. The sombre Bruins flew home to Los Angeles, still stinging from getting trumped at their own game. "It's going to definitely put a scar on us," freshman Darren Collison said. "We're going to remember this feeling."

Throughout the NCAA tournament, UCLA had imposed its will on other teams, getting hands in opponents' faces, blocking shots and dictating the tempo.

But on Monday night in Indianapolis, it was the Gators who played stifling defense and forced the Bruins into 36 per cent shooting from the floor and 12 turnovers.

"It hurts bad," Jordan Farmar said in a hushed locker room. "We don't want to feel like this ever again."

Even before the disillusionment had fully engulfed them, coach Ben Howland delivered a message to his team.

"Our goal is to get back here again next year and win it," he said. "The biggest thing when you lose a game, especially a game of this magnitude for the national championship, is learning from and responding to defeat, disappointment. How you respond to that means everything."

The Bruins proved a resilient bunch throughout an injury-wracked season. Every scholarship player was hurt at one time or another, which provided valuable minutes for the underclassmen-dominated team.

Josh Shipp was lost for the season in January because of constant pain in his right hip after surgery. The sophomore forward provided a glimpse of his potential, though, by scoring in double figures in the four Pac-10 games he played in.

UCLA plans to petition the NCAA for a medical hardship waiver for Shipp, which could get him an extra year of eligibility.

Even with the injuries, Howland got terrific production off the bench and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute blossomed into one of the nation's top freshmen rebounders, helping the Bruins (32-7) equal a school record for victories - the most since they won the 1995 national championship.

"We got lucky a few times along the way by staying together and believing in each other," said Farmar, who had 18 points against Florida.

They brought a 12-game winning streak into the title game, including a 73-71 comeback victory over No. 3 seed Gonzaga in the Oakland Regional semifinal and a 50-45 defeat of No. 1 Memphis in the regional final.

The Bruins dismantled LSU 59-45 in the national semifinals, when Glen "Big Baby" Davis was outscored 17-14 and outrebounded 9-7 by Mbah a Moute.

"We did a lot to bring UCLA back to where it belongs," Mbah a Moute said. "This is something to build on. It just gives us more anger in trying to come back next year."

The Bruins will lose starting seniors Cedric Bozeman and Ryan Hollins, along with reserves Michael Fey and Janou Rubin.

But Hollins feels good about leaving the team's future in the hands of sophomores Farmar and Arron Afflalo, along with freshmen Darren Collison, Alfred Aboya, Mbah a Moute, Michael Roll and Ryan Wright of Mississauga, Ont., who gained valuable experience on a national stage.

"They'll be right back," Hollins predicted. "They truly understand what it takes to be a championship-level team. These next years are going to be exciting."

Afflalo was particularly glum after his 10-point, two-rebound, three-turnover performance in the title game. Like the rest of the Bruins, he struggled offensively throughout the tournament.

"Any competitor and any person who's at this stage needs to hurt to go far to improve and get better and don't let it happen again," Farmar said.

Afflalo is the Bruins' top defender, and it pained him to see Joakim Noah burst through the paint for dunk after dunk. He'll remember the image well into the summer, when he practises against NBA players on the UCLA campus.

"Whenever you don't feel like working out or whenever you don't feel like doing things necessary to get to this point, that's what's going to put me over the top individually," Afflalo said. "I'm already a hard worker and now it's going to make me even more."

A year ago, the Bruins lost to Texas Tech in the first round of the tournament, not having fully grasped Howland's gritty defensive style.

"We worked hard and got better and tried to help our younger guys understand what we were talking about," Farmar said. "We gained so much experience as a unit, it'll be interesting coming back."

Adding to the Bruins' core next season will be James Keefe, a six-foot-eight, 220-pound McDonald's All-American forward, and Marko Spica, a six-foot-nine, 225-pound centre from Serbia and Montenegro.

"We'll be very good next year," Afflalo said. "This team knows what it takes to get to this point. We should be right back here, hopefully."



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