Commentary: Bruins deserved this

Sunday, March 25, 2007

— They celebrated, but not too wildly.

Donned their regional championship hats and T-shirts, hugged, waved to the crowd.

The Bruins clearly enjoyed their moment, only it seemed contained euphoria. A practiced, almost controlled celebration.

Their eyes are honed on a greater prize. They have been all season. Unlike last year, there was no discovering just how good they are as the postseason progressed. They started back in November believing they were exactly this good.

The UCLA Bruins are going to the Final Four. They call it that for good reason. Only four college basketball teams will remain standing by today's end, and for the second consecutive year, the Bruins will be one of them.

And that deserves acclaim, deserves special recognition. Deserves for the Bruins to feel very good about themselves.

UCLA beat an excellent Kansas team Saturday, 68-55, to capture the West and advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.

"We played the best team we've played all year today," said UCLA coach Ben Howland.

They did it by doing many of the things they've done well all season - stifling defense, controlling the tempo, using the clock, getting big play from Arron Afflalo - and some they did because they had to - hitting last-second shots, running early, getting strong bench play and overcoming a whopping 25 turnovers.

They did it with perhaps their most entertaining game of the year. The first half was an absolute jaw-dropper. There were incredibly athletic plays all over the court by both teams. Leads going back and forth. Players skying, spinning, almost flying.

When Josh Shipp hit a three-pointer at the first-half buzzer, UCLA overcame a six-point deficit to lead 35-31 at the break. It was that rare intermission where you couldn't wait for the second half to begin.

"I'm looking forward to watching the game," Howland said.

In the second half, UCLA and Afflalo began to take control. The Bruins pushed their lead to 11 points, though with the talented Jayhawks, no lead felt truly safe.

Certainly, the Bruins were playing far from a perfect game. As has been the case throughout the tournament, the offense would stall, the decidedly pro-UCLA crowd would begin a clock countdown, and then some last-second shot would be unleashed. And more often than not, somehow find only net.

The Bruins were up just 55-50 with 4:43 left when Darren Collison hit a three-pointer with half the Kansas team closing on him at the buzzer.

"Going up eight late in the game, on the shot clock, two guys in his face, (it) was a beautiful thing to watch," Afflalo said.

The Bruins were in control now, and there would be no amazing Kansas comeback to thwart UCLA's goal.

"We played a very good team today, a team that can win it all," said Kansas coach Bill Self.

He called this Jayhawk team the best he has coached in his 14 seasons. It was the fourth time a Self team had advanced to the Elite Eight. The fourth time he was turned away.

"It hurts," he said.

Because it is so very hard to do, such a difficult task to overcome. Over 330 schools play Div. I basketball, and only four will go to Atlanta.

That is why UCLA needs to celebrate this as a wonderful accomplishment on its own. Needs to understand just how special it is to advance.

"We're going to enjoy this win," said forward Michael Roll. "It's a great win for us. We're going to the Final Four, which is a great time.

"But we know what we have to do when we get there. Ever since practice first started, this has been our goal."

The Bruins will play the winner of today's Florida-Oregon game. They know both extremely well.

Oregon, of course, is from the Pac-10 Conference.

They split their two conference games with the Ducks.

Their Florida remembrance is even more painful. It was the Gators who defeated UCLA last year in the NCAA championship game, beating them rather easily, 73-57.

It has driven the Bruins all season. Been less a rallying cry, than simple motivation.

This year their gaze has been constant, the play steady, confident.

"Our team has just been spectacular," Howland said. "We're playing our best basketball of the season right now."

Maybe it all ends against Florida again, a game shy of the national championship.

If it does, it still has been a wondrous journey on its own. A moment to be cherished regardless of whatever awaits.