Their Spirit Is Unflagging

Their Spirit Is Unflagging
UCLA fans in Pauley Pavilion show disappointment while watching the Bruins play Florida in Indianapolis for the NCAA championship. The Gators won, 73-57. (Stefano Paltera / For the Times)
The lights were dimmed, the baskets were gone, and the team was more than 2,000 miles away.

But for die-hard, raucous UCLA fans — and thousands of them showed up Monday evening — Pauley Pavilion was seventh heaven with a thundering eight-clap.

At least until the game started to slip away.

"My heart rate is definitely up," Bruin backer John Galloway said before the game, raising his voice above the chants and cheers of the reported crowd of 6,041. "It's time for this school in this city to enjoy the limelight of a national championship."

Even as the Florida lead swelled to double digits, the mood at Pauley was lively and hopeful. School officials had opened the doors to students, alumni, basically anyone who wanted to watch the game with a few thousand of their closest friends. The broadcast was shown on cinema-sized screens hanging above either baseline, and on the scoreboard, which also kept tabs on the score.

The floor-level bleachers were reserved for about 70 members of the UCLA band — the school's band was 30 strong in Indianapolis — and several cheerleaders, who performed during timeouts and at halftime.

"We have a full house here for a lot of games, but the crowd is almost never as enthusiastic and excited as this," said freshman June Pai, who plays piccolo in the band.

Although the team wasn't in the building, and several sections of seats were empty, the place crackled with energy. More than an hour before tipoff, the line to get in snaked four-wide into the distance up the hill leading to the dormitories.

"You could feel the excitement all over campus today," cheerleader Catherine Brewer said. "I'm in a sorority, and girls who never watched sports are suddenly interested in what's going on."

Not everyone around the school had Final Four fever, but there were some less-than-subtle signs that something special was going on. Like the alligator-shaped pool raft jammed in the mouth of the bear statue outside the Wooden Center.

That turned out to be wishful thinking. But, even after Florida took a commanding lead, the fans at Pauley erupted in cheers with every UCLA basket and every Florida miss. After all, the Bruins pulled off a Sweet 16 victory over Gonzaga despite falling behind by 17 points in the first half.

The public-address announcer at Pauley did his best to prop up spirits, periodically urging, "Remember, fans, it's a 40-minute game. It's not over."

Only in the final two minutes, when it was clear no miracle comeback was in the works, did cheers melt into half-hearted claps. As the last seconds ticked away, many people headed for the exits. But many more stayed, applauding their vanquished team one more time.