Afflalo Comes Alive As UCLA Surges On

By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 25, 2007

SAN JOSE, March 24 -- They actually had doubted the kid from Compton. Arron Afflalo, the heart and soul of the UCLA basketball team, hadn't been the same lately. The Bruins' detractors knew of his ability to jump-start a team, but they pointed out that his star quality had been missing during UCLA's run through the NCAA tournament.

They noted his poor shooting nights and the Bruins' lethargic offense and figured it would haunt UCLA in its matchup with top-seeded Kansas.

And early on, the detractors looked correct, as Afflalo and the second-seeded Bruins struggled to adjust to the style of the high-octane Jayhawks on Saturday.

But in 13 crucial minutes, Afflalo removed any hint of his supposed slump, scoring 15 of his game-high 24 points in the second half to lead the Bruins to a 68-55 victory in the West Region final, ensuring the Bruins' first back-to-back Final Four appearances since 1975-76.

"I was fortunate enough to make a couple of jump shots," said Afflalo, the all-American guard who was named the region's most outstanding player.

After getting to this point behind a bruising defense, UCLA (30-5) underwent an offensive renaissance at the best time, and Afflalo provided all the masterstrokes, scoring 14 of points during a critical period just after halftime. UCLA improved to 5-0 all-time against Kansas in NCAA tournament games and denied the Jayhawks their first appearance in the Final Four since 2003.

Afflalo pushed UCLA's lead to double digits with 13 minutes 20 seconds left when he snaked his way to the block for a layup that gave the Bruins a 46-35 advantage.

"We go to him in big game situations," UCLA guard-forward Josh Shipp said. "He was feeling it. . . . We milked the well."

The Jayhawks (33-5) attempted to play through repeated missed layups. Russell Robinson's three-pointer trimmed the UCLA lead to 55-50 with little more than five minutes to go.

Moments later, Bruins point guard Darren Collison delivered the knockout blow. Collison nearly fell down while launching a desperation three-pointer between Robinson and Brandon Rush. But as the shot clock buzzer sounded, the ball sailed through the basket, and the Jayhawks never got that close again.

"They made some harder shots that we took and missed," said fourth-year Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who absorbed his fourth region final loss, his second at Kansas.

Loud pockets of Bruins fans turned HP Pavilion into Pauley Pavilion North. The decidedly pro-UCLA crowd roared at each blown layup by Kansas. When the Bruins thundered toward their basket with a numbers advantage -- which happened often -- the fans rose in anticipation, their light blue shirts making them look like a wave building on the Pacific.

Eventually, the wave swallowed the Jayhawks, who had no answer for the Bruins' surge. Later, they rose again in unison to applaud the Bruins as they cut down the nets.

"It felt like a home game," Shipp said.

During the last two games of the tournament, UCLA shelved its showtime potential to play a grinding defensive style. Kansas was forced to do the same in its round-of-16 matchup with Southern Illinois.

By the first timeout Saturday, just five minutes into the game, it was obvious that the teams had traded in their work boots for running shoes.

UCLA led 35-31 at halftime behind a 12-2 run over the last four minutes, even though Kansas looked more comfortable at warp speed than did the Bruins. At first, UCLA looked more bothered by pace, supporting earlier concerns that the team's once-freewheeling offense had stalled with the recent emphasis on scrappy defense. Meantime, the Jayhawks staged an above-the-rim exhibition, punctuated by Rush's forceful tomahawk dunk late in the first half.

Yet as the game continued to unfold and the Jayhawks started to build their pile of short-range misses, the Bruins seemingly rediscovered their ability to run, then eventually took over by slowing the pace. By the second half, UCLA asserted its will once again through its defense, a familiar formula the Bruins will take to Atlanta.

Said UCLA Coach Ben Howland, "We're playing our best basketball of the season right now."

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