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Bruins say this is their time to shine

Times Staff Writer

Josh Shipp says the Florida Gators celebrated a little extravagantly last season after they’d defeated UCLA in the NCAA national championship game, 73-57.

Shipp had a good seat for that game in Indianapolis.

He was recovering from hip surgery and he watched everything -- the way Florida’s inside duo of Joakim Noah and Al Horford controlled the offensive boards, how Noah broke down UCLA’s proud defense with his passing, how the Gators played like grown men while the Bruins seemed wide-eyed innocents.

And at the end, Noah was blowing charming or arrogant kisses, depending on your seat, to UCLA cheerleaders, and other Gators were dancing on tables and thumping their chests.

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“I thought it was a little bit too much,” Shipp said Friday at the Georgia Dome. “I hope if we win, we handle it a little bit better.”

Shipp will not be stuck to the bench when the Bruins (30-5), champions of the Pacific 10 Conference, play the Gators (33-5), champions of the Southeastern Conference, today in the semifinals.

Florida, which was top-seeded in the Midwest Regional, has five starters back from its dominating win over UCLA, which started the tournament seeded No. 2 in the West Regional.

The Gators were ranked No. 1 for much of this year, including at the end.

“They have played with a bull’s-eye on their chest all year and they’ve handled it well,” UCLA Coach Ben Howland said.

UCLA lost three starters from its national runner-up team. Center Ryan Hollins, forward Cedric Bozeman and point guard Jordan Farmar have spent some or all of this season in the NBA.

Yet, to a man, the Bruins think they are a better team now.

Junior Lorenzo Mata is UCLA’s center. He is three inches shorter than Hollins and was not a high school track star as Hollins was. What Mata offers, says Howland, is a toughness that is hard to categorize, although he points out that Mata has twice broken his nose as a Bruin, has broken a leg, can miss a dunk with the best of them but come back and make a tough inside shot.

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Howland considered Bozeman UCLA’s best perimeter defender last year, but Shipp offers more clever offense and has stood up to criticism during the season that his own defense wasn’t intense enough.

“He’s underrated there,” Howland said.

And sophomore Darren Collison replaced Farmar, who went to the Lakers and was considered by some irreplaceable.

Florida point guard Taurean Green said, though, “Collison is probably quicker than Farmar and brings a lot of defensive energy.”

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Indeed, UCLA has held its first four NCAA opponents to an average of 50.2 points. When the Bruins beat Kansas last Saturday in the Elite Eight, 68-55, they held the Jayhawks to their lowest point total of the season. And those 55 were the most UCLA has given up in the tournament.

During Friday’s open practices at the Georgia Dome, the Bruins showed off their stretching prowess. They also shot free throws, not always a crowd-pleasing activity though UCLA fans cheered heartily when Mata, a 37% shooter from the line, made four in a row. And they finished with about eight minutes of shooting from half court.

The Gators caused more uproar. They dunked and high-fived and were more showy than the Bruins. They carry with them the memory of having won the national title a year ago and the belief that they’ve ably handled the pressure that comes with being the favorite.

Noah, who Howland insists would have been the top choice in the NBA draft had he left school after that title and his sophomore season, said he was proud of the way his team dealt with national scrutiny.

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“I feel like all year, when the Gators come to play, it has been a circus in every arena,” he said. “We are really happy, but we are not satisfied right now. Those UCLA guys thought it was a great accomplishment to be in the NCAA championship game, but I am sure it was really quiet after that game.”

UCLA guard Arron Afflalo has held close the emotions he felt after last year’s final loss.

“I had a lot of anger,” the All-American said, “a lot of pain. I have a lot of humility about what I do. It’s a little different to watch other people celebrate against you. But Florida came out and competed last year. They played very hard. We didn’t put forth the effort.”

And all the dancing and table stomping and finger waving and chest thumping were prompted by one thing. “We won the national championship,” Horford, Florida’s center, said. “We want to do it again.”

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

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UCLA vs. Florida

* Florida is 33-5 and the No. 1-seeded team from the Midwest.

* UCLA is 30-5 and the No. 2-seeded team from the West.

* Game time: Today, 5:45 p.m. PDT; Channel 2

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*--* STARTERS UCLA Ht. Wt. Stats Pos FLORIDA Ht. Wt. Stats Josh Shipp 6-5 207 13.1 ppg F Joakim Noah 6-11 232 12.2 ppg L.R. Mbah a 6-7 224 7.5 rpg F Corey 6-9 185 13.1 ppg Moute Brewer Lorenzo Mata 6-9 240 5.5 rpg C Al Horford 6-10 245 13.2 ppg Arron Afflalo 6-5 210 16.9 ppg G Lee 6-2 192 46% 3pts Humphrey Darren Collison 6-0 160 5.7 apg G Taurean 6-0 177 3.6 apg Green RESERVES Alfred Aboya 6-8 233 4.2 rpg F Chris 6-9 255 67% FGs Richard Michael Roll 6-5 205 4.9 ppg G Walter 6-0 170 51% 3pt Hodge Russell 6-3 187 3.4 ppg G|F Dan Werner 6-7 235 1.8 ppg Westbrook HOW THEY MATCH UP

*--*

* INSIDE -- It’s no secret. UCLA Coach Ben Howland has his mantra: Florida has the two best big men in college basketball in the starting lineup. The Gators’ Horford, whose father Tito was an NBA player, is physically gifted with strength and speed, Howland said, as well as toughness. Howland noted Noah’s gracefulness with both his scoring and his passing, and that grace comes from Noah’s father Yannick, a French tennis champion. Last year, Noah cracked an integral part of UCLA’s defense -- its reliance on double teams in the post -- with his clever passing. UCLA’s Aboya winked Friday and suggested the Bruins had “a little wrinkle” in its defense and might not use the double teams so liberally. Horford and Noah combine to average 26.8 points, 20.8 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots a game. Florida’s third inside player, Brewer, presents another matchup problem for UCLA, both offensively and defensively. It probably will be Afflalo’s job to stop Brewer on offense with some help from Shipp. Florida also brings a substantial physical presence off the bench in Richard, who is not afraid to use his shoulders as battering rams in clearing rebounding space.

* OUTSIDE -- It was the canny three-point shooter Humphrey who benefited from Noah’s passes last year. Humphrey, who makes 46% of his three-point shots, went four for eight last year. “He always managed to get open,” UCLA assistant Donny Daniels said. “Funny how those three-point guys do that.” Where UCLA might be improved is defensively. Collison has longer arms than his 6-foot frame suggests and with a quick wrist flip can deflect passes. All-American Afflalo seemed to find his scoring passion in UCLA’s win over Kansas last weekend and is quietly determined to not disappear as he did, with the help of Brewer’s defense, last year. Howland considers Florida’s Green, son of former UNLV star Sidney Green, one of the best in the country.

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* COACHING -- Aboya said that last year the Gators “seemed to know all our plays,” and that’s certainly a testament to Florida Coach Billy Donovan. He has deftly handled the distraction of whether he will become Kentucky’s coach next season, and his players were loose during Friday’s open practice at the Georgia Dome. Howland does not often lose when he has a week to prepare for an opponent and in a sense it could be seen that Howland has spent a year preparing for a Florida rematch. He has watched that much film on the Gators.

* KEY -- Florida averages 84 points a game; UCLA gives up 59.5. So it would seem up to the Bruins to slow down the Gators. That was supposed to be how Kansas would beat the Bruins last week, by swarming over UCLA with its better athletes and deeper bench. The Bruins need Mata, Mbah a Moute and Aboya to be physical on defense and aggressive offensively. Afflalo must be able to drive around Brewer and the Bruins can’t afford to commit 25 turnovers as they did against Kansas. The Gators didn’t have to deal with Collison’s quickness, three-point aim and defensive pressure last year.

* PREDICTION -- UCLA 76, Florida 72.

--DIANE PUCIN

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