In loss to Florida, UCLA sees what it could be
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — There were 10 minutes remaining in what would have been the maddest March moment of all.
UCLA trailed top-seeded Florida by just one point. The streaking, upstart Bruins had the veteran Gators reeling, gasping, wondering. Steve Alford’s kids were on the verge of stunning their way through South Regional semifinals and on to previously unimaginable greatness.
“We really felt like were on the verge of taking the lead,” said Norman Powell. “The energy was shifting. We really had a chance.”
And they will take the lead. One day. They will own these moments. One day. Alford has spun this program in the right direction and his team will be strong enough physically and emotionally to pull off this kind of victory. One day.
But Thursday night at the FedEx Forum was not that day. In front of a large, loud Bruins crowd, UCLA pushed Florida to the edge before crumbling under its lack of cool, lack of a big man, and plain old lack of experience.
In those final, exact 10 minutes, Florida outscored UCLA by exactly 10 points to take a 79-68 victory for its 29th consecutive win while moving within one more victory of the Final Four.
The Bruins, meanwhile, head into a long but potentially bright summer. It was a loss, it was an ending, but in many ways it felt like a start.
“Florida knows how to play in these kind of moments, we sort of got frustrated and lost it, but this tells us we can be back here,” said Powell. “Next season, with how far we came this year, with what we have coming back, we can be back here.”
It was the Bruins’ fourth loss to the Gators in the last eight seasons of NCAA tournaments, but, even though the score doesn’t indicate it, these two programs have never seemed closer.
“We were right there,” said David Wear.
Then, suddenly, they weren’t. This group that had steamrolled to victories over five NCAA tournament teams in the last two weekends suddenly, finally, felt the pressure that eventually swallowed it.
“Florida did what they were supposed to do,” said Tony Parker. “And we didn’t.”
With 9:41 remaining, Dorian Finney-Smith hit a jumper to give Florida a three-point lead, then the floor collapsed beneath the Bruins. Kyle Anderson missed a layup, Parker missed a free throw, Zach Lavine missed a layup, Parker missed a follow shot and on it went until Alford called a timeout with 7:18 remaining.
The Bruins were still down by just three, but the coach who loves to celebrate his team’s assist statistics was livid.
“You’ve taken six bad shots in a row!” he shouted to them on the bench. “Pass the ball!”
Michael Frazier hit a jumper for Florida immediately after the timeout, and by then, the Bruins were too rattled to charge back. Consecutive shots by Bryce Alford were blocked, setting up the closing act by the perfect finisher.
Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators’ veteran point guard and SEC player of the year, took advantage of a Bruins defensive lapse to hit an open three-pointer to give Florida an eight-point lead. Moments later, Wilbekin hit a flying layup and converted a three-point play. Then, when the Bruins closed the gap to five in the final three minutes, Wilbekin banked in a fall-away runner while surrounded by three stunned Bruins to essentially clinch the game.
“Just trying to get a shot up on the backboard and give the bigs a chance to rebound,” said Wilbekin. “It ended up going in.”
Imagine that. A guard trying to win a game not with a basket, but with a shot that could result in an offensive rebound. Those are the sorts of lessons Florida, led by three seniors, imparted on a Bruins team that needs to stick together long enough to gain that wisdom.
Said Travis Wear: “It was tough to see those shots go in and put the nail in the coffin for us.”
Said Florida’s Patric Young: “Scottie McBuckets ... we know we can trust him and that he’s going to make it happen.”
The Bruins have a player who could soon be like Wilbekin — his name is Kyle Anderson, but the giant point guard was inexplicably on the bench during that Gators’ 10-0 late run, and now he’s going to the NBA.
The Bruins have other players who could also grow into a Wilbekin kind of leader, Norman Powell or Jordan Adams, but they are both sophomores who have never played a role that big.
This was Thursday’s story, and the story of the end of UCLA’s season. They are talented, but not yet tough enough. They are skilled but not yet savvy enough. They are good, but not yet good enough, but by this time next season, that could all change.
“We all see where this is going,” said Parker.
Parker knows better than anyone this is going to a spot next year where UCLA should not only be more experienced, but also bigger. The Bruins were outrebounded by 10 and outscored by five on second-chance points Thursday because they have no real strong inside game, but that should change.
UCLA should benefit from another year of growth by Parker and the addition of three big recruits — Gyorgy Goloman (6-10), Kevon Looney (6-9) and Thomas Welsh (7 feet).
“We know the Sweet 16 doesn’t mean anything at UCLA, we know we have to get back to work,” Parker said.
Having seen Florida, the Bruins should know exactly what they are working toward. Having seen themselves, they should know, finally, that they are capable of getting there.
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