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April 3, 2006

UCLA pursues No. 12

Proving pundits wrong game after game, UCLA has ridden a wave into the NCAA Finals for the 13th time in school history. Before their 59-45 dismantling of tournament darling LSU on Saturday in the national semifinals, national analysts predicted the Bruins would have a tough time handling the Tigers dominant front line, but the trouble was all LSU's because freshman sensation Luc Richard Mbah a Moute stole the show.

The 6-7 Mbah a Moute scored 17 points and ripped down nine rebounds, out-dueling the more celebrated LSU frontline of Glen Davis and Tyrus Thomas. He also added two steals and it was the overall play on both ends of the floor from Mbah a Moute that sparked the victory for his squad.

Monday night, UCLA will face a similar test with a Florida team also known for their athletic frontcourt. Led by sophomore forwards Joakim Noah (6-11, 227) and Al Horford (6-8, 235), the Gators shattered the glass slipper of Cinderella George Mason 73-58 in the first semifinal game Saturday afternoon.

Quite possibly the hottest team in the tournament thus far, Florida has beaten their opponents by an average margin of 14 points over their five tournament games. They also ended their regular season on a five-game winning streak, taking home the SEC Conference tournament crown with a 49-47 win over South Carolina.

That final game against the Gamecocks is a tape Ben Howland and his staff may want to revisit. Besides South Carolina, only Georgetown has been able to keep the Gators under 70 points in the month of March. The high flying tandem of Noah and Horford were even able to post 81 against UCLA's semifinal opponent, LSU, in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

While Horford is the biggest NBA Draft prospect on the board for head coach Billy Donovan's squad, it has been Noah who has garnered the headlines and led this team to the Finals. Over the five-game tournament stretch, the New York City product has averaged 16.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per game.

The key matchup in this game could be UCLA defensive specialist Arron Afflalo against Florida shooting guard Lee Humphrey. The 6-2 junior has hit six triples in two separate games during the tournament run, the latest in the semifinals against George Mason when he went 6-12 from beyond the arc. Of course, Afflalo is also a catalyst on the offensive end of the floor for the Bruins. He scored just nine points in 28 minutes of play Saturday, but leads the team with a 16 point per game average.

The nation's attention, however, will be focused on the inside battle between the starting front lines of the two teams. After suffering a leg injury last Friday, 7-0 starting center Ryan Hollins logged 17 minutes in the semifinals win over LSU. It was Howland's ability to bring players off the bench, specifically 6-8 sophomore Lorenzo Mata who grabbed eight rebounds, that ultimately countered LSU's interior play, though.

The ability to run more bodies at the Florida front line is an advantage Howland will likely use again Monday night. Mbah a Moute will need to stay active on both ends of the floor to counter the athleticism of Noah and Horford while Hollins, Mata and 6-8 freshman Alfred Aboya provide quality play to back him up.

Afflalo was fairly silent on Saturday, but point guard Jordan Farmar hit big three-pointers to start both halves and at least one of the two will need to be on to counter the backcourt tandem of Humprhey and sophomore Taurean Green who always seem to be on. Not only is a 12th title in sight, but it is certainly within the Bruins' grasp because Florida is a team UCLA can match up with.


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