UCLA lost the final game. And, unlike 11 other times in the school’s marvelous basketball history, a championship banner won’t be added to Pauley Pavilion.
But, oh what a run it was.
This was Ben Howland’s third season in Westwood, and the coach had told friends early in the season he’d keep building his program and perhaps in the fifth year an NCAA championship might be possible.
But Howland’s team overachieved, reached the Final Four and then earned a place in the title game Monday night, only to be defeated 73-57 by a superior Florida team.
Florida had better players and wasn’t vulnerable the way other Bruin opponents were in the tournament. Memphis was young and became rattled by UCLA’s slowdown game. LSU’s best player weighed 300 pounds and couldn’t match UCLA’s speed. But Florida beat UCLA inside and shot well enough to make a big early lead hold up.
“I’m sorry we came up a little short, but we’re one of the elite programs in the country again,’’ said Howland.
That’s really what it’s all about. Only one team can win each season, but what this Bruin team accomplished will translate to greater attendance next season, more national television appearances and the possibility of more attractive scheduling.
UCLA went from a promising team to one that could march through the tournament when 7-foot center Ryan Hollins elevated his game in the last month. Hollins hadn’t figured out how to dominate during four Westwood years until he suddenly blossomed.
But in the final game he met his match in Joakim Noah, who was almost as tall and considerably more advanced as a basketball player. The son of tennis star Yannick Noah was the best player in the tournament and had plenty of help from frontcourt partner Al Horford, the son of former NBA player Tito Horford.
Don’t think of this UCLA team as only the second one in school history to lose an NCAA championship game. Think of it as a group of kids who bought into the coach’s game plans and went a lot further than anyone expected.
UCLA had four seniors. Everone else will be back and forward Josh Shipp, a starter who couldn’t play because of a hip injury, figures to return too.
There will be a few more additions, most notably 6-foot-8 forward James Keefe, a prized recruit.
“This will help recruiting,’’ said Howland.
It sure will. UCLA is back on the map in college basketball.
So is the Pac-10 Conference, which was maligned all season. But UCLA got to the championship game and Washington reached the Sweet 16, then had Connecticut in trouble until losing in overtime.
Arizona, which staggered through the season, played its best basketball during the tournament and gave Villanova a scare before narrowly losing.
A fourth Pac-10 team, California, was the only one to be eliminated in the first round.
Locally, there should be considerable interest in college basketball next season. UCLA is the defending conference champion and USC, which defeated UCLA once this season, will begin playing in its long-awaited new arena, the Galen Center, across the street from campus with some excellent new players recruited by Coach Tim Floyd.