Afflalo makes few mistakes

Sunday, March 25, 2007

— Snipping down the nets never gets old.

That said, it's amazing that UCLA basketball star Arron Afflalo almost forgot to do it Saturday. Following the Bruins' 68-55 NCAA Tournament victory over Kansas University - one that propelled UCLA into the Final Four - Afflalo celebrated on the podium with his team as the West Regional trophy was passed out.

Then, he nearly ran off the HP Pavilion court before the net-cutting ceremony began.

An innocent mistake, and it may have been Afflalo's first of the day. The junior guard played fantastic basketball Saturday, scoring 24 points and hitting every shot he took in the second half - when his team needed him the most.

It added up to the Bruins' second straight trip to the Final Four, meaning Afflalo has two pieces of net as souvenirs now.

Yes, he did get one Saturday after his teammates called him back on the court and sent him up the ladder.

"I'm just so happy because I'm more a part of the team each year because I'm older," Afflalo said. "I appreciate it a little bit more."

Afflalo had nine consecutive points for UCLA during a second-half run. Two of them came on a one-on-one jumper over KU's Brandon Rush as the shot clock expired, putting the Bruins up eight midway through the second half.

That shot was outdone, but not by Afflalo. Instead, Darren Collison twisted the dagger into KU by drilling an off-balance, guarded three as the shot clock expired to put UCLA up 58-50.

Had the Jayhawks (33-5) escaped the possession surrendering no points, they were poised to make it a one-possession game with about four minutes to go. Instead, the pro-UCLA crowd in HP Pavilion went bonkers, and Kansas never got closer.

"It was at a point in time where the momentum was going to shift one way or the other," Afflalo said. "For him to have the courage to take that shot was huge."

The Bruins (30-5) were helped by Collison's 14 points, but it was Afflalo's work - on offense and defense - that carried them into next week's national semifinal in Atlanta.

"He was just focused," forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said. "I've been around him so long that I know when he's going to have a good game. I could tell this was one of those nights."

Added coach Ben Howland: "Arron's a big-time player, and big-time players make important shots in big games, on the stage. I'm really proud of Arron. He's just so tough."

The crowd obviously appreciated it, too. UCLA supporters surrounded the court Saturday, taking up roughly three-fourths of the arena. It was a home-court advantage that was forecasted early in the tournament - and noticeable once it came to be.

"This is what we strived for all year," Afflalo said. "To put ourselves at this type of advantage by having a great regular season. It was definitely beneficial for us."

Now comes the Final Four for a Bruins team that can't possibly be satisfied with merely a cameo. UCLA lost to Florida, 73-57, in the NCAA championship game last year. The Bruins will find out their next opponent today, and then the quest for two more victories will start.

"It feels really good. This is what we all dream about when we try to be college basketball players," Collison said. "Last year we didn't get the job done. But this year, hopefully we do."