April 2, 2006
INDIANAPOLIS — Just when everyone thought they had UCLA's number, the Bruins changed it.
Turned the Final Four into the Indy 500.
Filled the RCA Dome with a scalding roar and covered LSU with skid marks.
Jordan Farmar flew into the corners, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute sprinted down the straightaways, and Ben Howland flapped around as if he were, well, um, a checkered flag.
Can you tell we're still a bit out of sorts? Aren't you?
On a feverish Saturday night, a wide-eyed and possibly overwhelmed UCLA team plodded into a national semifinal game a year early and an offense short.
A couple of hours later, the wide eyes and short breaths belonged to us.
These Bruins, gasp, can really win, gasp, a national championship.
In chasing down and pounding LSU — the final score was 59-45 in a game that wasn't remotely that close — the tortoise did more than beat the hare.
The tortoise became the hare.
The rope-a-dope became hit-and-run.
And, indeed, the once-unimaginable prospect of UCLA's winning a national title game Monday night has become a reality.
"We're so close, we can blow on it," said Cedric Bozeman.
Or, at this rate, blow right over it.
Seriously. UCLA can beat Florida. UCLA should beat Florida.
How are the flighty Gators going to score against all those darting arms and pushing bodies?
And now that the athletic Bruins have added ballet to the bruising, how are the Gators going to stop them?
The last time UCLA won a national title in 1995, it had to defeat Arkansas' 40 minutes of hell.
Saturday night revealed that these Bruins are that hell.
"This is not Coach Wooden's team, but it's a special team," said Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who waved to the crowd and cheered the kids. "Tonight, that team came out and made a statement."
They began the game breathing their late lunch on the faces of the stunned young Tigers, swarming them into seven missed shots and two turnovers before they even scored their third basket.
They turned steals and rebounds into fastbreak layups, quick jumpers and you'll never guess what else.
"Hey," Bozeman announced afterward, "UCLA can still dunk the ball."
After scoring 39 points in the first half and grabbing a 15-point lead, they deflated everything in the second half and cruised to a victory so overwhelming, exhausted LSU folk hero Glen "Big Baby" Davis shoved Mbah a Moute right in front of an official for his fifth foul with 2:09 remaining.
Yeah, he fouled out on purpose.
"We couldn't get up," said Davis, who missed a dozen shots and a half-dozen free throws and was outrebounded by two smaller Bruins. "They kept on fighting, kept on fighting."
The Bruins were so relentless, the star of their last championship, Ed O'Bannon, rose to his feet and led the UCLA cheering section in an eight-clap.
"Look at those players' faces," said O'Bannon, standing in the corner of a locker room filled with surprised reporters interviewing shrugging kids.
"Tonight was the kind of game that gives them so much confidence, they don't think they can lose."
Look at their faces, indeed.
Mbah a Moute's freshman smile has become a veteran glare.
He bumped and grinded to dunks and steals and nine rebounds and 17 points and one whining Baby.
"My back hurts right now," Mbah a Moute said, smiling. "[Davis] is big."
Farmar's hesitant smile has become an outright sneer.
Running and firing off UCLA steals, he nailed a trio of three-pointers, leaving his hand dangling in the air after each of them, and had as many assists (four) as the entire LSU team combined.
"They're looking at each other, pointing fingers, sometimes eyes get real big, like a deer in the headlights," Farmar said of the Tigers.
Lorenzo Mata's face is, well, actually, it's impossible to see his face because he is wearing a mask to protect his freshly broken nose.
But when Mata, who still grabbed eight rebounds, was given a standing ovation after blocking one of Big Baby's shots, it appeared that he was smiling.
"Coach told us to come out and take their hearts out," Mata said. "We took their hearts out."
The entire Bruin team's weary look of wonder after a long weekend in Oakland has been replaced with a determined stare.
They are no longer a curiosity. They are no longer a fad.
"We're in the zone right now, we're in the moment," Bozeman said. "We believe we can do this."
And considering the heart of this team is made up of underclassman who are apparently not going into the NBA, they are doing it with the house's money, sopping up the moment like so much gravy.
"Honestly, when I came here this year, I thought I was going to help rebuild a program," said freshman Darren Collison. "I don't think anybody was ready for a national championship."
But here it is, 40 minutes away, one night that can already be put into one word.
"Unbelievable," said O'Bannon. "Unbelievable."
Just when everyone thought they had UCLA's number, the Bruins changed it.
From 11 to 12?
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
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