UCLA 68, Kansas 55

By: Jesse Kurtz
By: Jesse Kurtz

SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- With good-natured shoves and claps, the UCLA Bruins formed a circle around Arron Afflalo -- the rightful center of attention.

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 the top-seeded Jayhawks for a 68-55 victory in the West Regional final Saturday night.

Afflalo, hiding behind the souvenir hat and T-shirt from the biggest game of his career, tried to be just one of the guys -- even though he was clearly the best guy on this night.

"I don't really think about it during the game, but when you're making shots, you're gaining confidence," said Afflalo, who made all six of his shots after halftime. "My teammates showed a lot of confidence in me. If I'm fortunate enough to make shots -- just keep shooting, keep playing. That has to be a scorer's mentality."

Darren Collison added 14 points and four big free throws in the final seconds while leading the Bruins' stellar defensive effort -- but whenever the Bruins faced offensive trouble, Afflalo seemed to solve it, hitting a big shot or drawing the defense to set up a teammate.

Second-seeded 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 edged ahead of North Carolina, which has 16 going into Sunday's East Regional final against Georgetown.

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.

"We do feel like we've been here before, and we know what to expect," 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."

When Afflalo's teammates surrounded him, the UCLA fans chanted "One more year!" at the smiling junior. He acknowledged the cheers with a wave of both hands, but quickly slipped back into team-speak when he returned to the locker room.

"It really wasn't me individually," Afflalo said. "It was the whole mind-set of our entire team. I was just fortunate enough to make some jump shots tonight."

Brandon Rush scored 18 points for the Jayhawks (33-5), 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.

"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. "We just did some dumb stuff -- dumb plays on defense and dumb plays on offense. We just had careless turnovers."

The teams combined for 32 steals and 46 turnovers -- yet both thought the game wasn't particularly sloppy. Two strong defensive teams collided, but Afflalo and his teammates also had the strength of experience.

"I'll give them credit, because they caused a lot of problems themselves," Collison said. "We had a lot of mistakes we normally don't make, and you've got to give credit to a good defense -- but we battled through it."

UCLA made a 14-4 run to take a 35-31 lead when Josh Shipp hit a 3-pointer at the first-half buzzer, and the Bruins took over with an 11-4 run after halftime. Every time Kansas attempted a comeback, Afflalo and Collison met them with a clutch basket or a big defensive play -- and the Jayhawks ran out of time.

"We had our best defenders on (Afflalo), but he's a good player," said Kansas coach Bill Self, who failed to win a regional final for the fourth time at three different schools. "I don't want to appear frustrated. We missed our free throws, and they didn't defend us on those. They just had some guys step up and make some plays. After they got the lead, they played poised."

Though Kansas is loaded with star talent, the Bruins returned with several major contributors to last Final Four squad. That experience showed in every pressure-packed possession between two teams that began the season with the Final Four as their only acceptable destination.

Afflalo likely felt more pressure than anyone: The Pac-10 player of the year 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: 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.

"We made (three) incredibly tough shots," said UCLA coach Ben Howland, the first coach to lead the Bruins to back-to-back Final Fours since John Wooden's nine straight. "Those are backbreakers. (Kansas was) playing great defense, and then a guy hits an unbelievable shot from 25 feet. That is tough."


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