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March 24, 2007

UCLA advances to second straight Final Four

Box Score

SAN JOSE, Calif. Arron Afflalo will get a second chance to shine in the Final Four - and he earned it by seizing the spotlight when UCLA most needed its leader.

In an exceptional second half that should help erase memories of his past mediocrity in big games, Afflalo scored 15 of his 24 points and the Bruins held off top-seeded Kansas for a 68-55 victory Saturday night in the West Regional championship.

Afflalo also led the Bruins' usual stellar defense, and Darren Collison added 14 points and four big free throws in the final seconds. UCLA (30-5) made its halftime lead stand up in an appropriately tense meeting between two schools with rich traditions and a combined 29 Final Four appearances - including an NCAA-record 17th for UCLA next week in Atlanta.

The Bruins, who lost to Florida in last season's national title game, could be in for a rematch: They'll meet Sunday's winner of the Gators' regional final against Oregon.

"It feels good," Collison said. "We felt that we didn't finish the job last year, so we're going to enjoy this moment, and then go back and try to finish it."

Brandon Rush scored 18 points for the Jayhawks, the first No. 1 seed to be eliminated from the tournament. Their 14-game winning streak also was snapped in the school's first NCAA tournament loss in California, where this game had a decided home-court feel for the Bruins.

Afflalo's teammates surrounded him in celebration after the buzzer, and the pro-UCLA crowd chanted "One more year!" at the smiling junior as he pulled on a commemorative T-shirt and hat.

Though Kansas (33-5) is loaded with star talent, the second-seeded Bruins returned with several major contributors to last season's run. That experience showed in every pressure-packed possession of a matchup between two teams that began the season with the Final Four as their only acceptable destination.

"I think we beat ourselves, but I have to give credit to their defense," said Rush, among several Jayhawks soon to be considering jumps to the NBA. "They made us force a lot of turnovers and made us give it to them."

Afflalo likely felt more pressure than anyone: The Pac-10 player of the year, Afflalo had a dismaying habit of disappearing in big games.

Afflalo struggled in both of the Bruins' Final Four contests last season, scoring a combined 19 points against LSU and Florida. He managed just three points in this season's conference tournament loss to California, and he was ineffective for long stretches of the Bruins' last two victories in the NCAA tournament.

He had no such trouble this time, hitting a series of clutch baskets with a dwindling shot clock in the second half as UCLA nursed a lead.

Whenever the Bruins faced offensive trouble, Afflalo solved it - with a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 10 minutes to play, or an acrobatic driving layup with 7 1/2 minutes left. Collison chipped in with another 3-pointer to beat the shot clock with 4:43 left.

UCLA then scored six straight points on free throws before Luc Richard Mbah a Moute's celebratory dunk with 24 seconds to play.

The Bruins edged ahead of North Carolina in Final Four appearances. The Tar Heels have 16 going into Sunday's East Regional final against Georgetown.

UCLA has never lost to Kansas in five NCAA tournament meetings. UCLA also has back-to-back 30-win seasons for the first time since 1972-73.

Kansas coach Bill Self has failed to win a regional final in four tries at three different schools - although this season's result was much more impressive than the Jayhawks' consecutive first-round exits in the previous two seasons.

The San Jose Sharks' hockey rink was filled with Bruins fans, both from the big Bay Area alumni base and those who made the drive north from Westwood. UCLA fed off the support and coach Ben Howland's usual bombastic, foot-stomping performance on the sideline, playing with remarkable defensive energy.

The clubs traded the lead through a predictably close first half. UCLA held Kansas scoreless in a 3 1/2-minute stretch shortly before halftime and made a 14-4 run to take a 35-31 lead when Josh Shipp hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Shipp, who missed last season's UCLA run because of hip surgery, pumped his fist and bumped chests with Afflalo as they headed to the locker room behind the Bruins band.

UCLA then opened the second half with an 11-4 run, taking an 11-point lead with just over 13 minutes left.

For more coverage of the UCLA Bruins, visit BruinBlitz.com; for more coverage of the Kansas Jayhawks, visit JayHawkSlant.com.



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