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Suffocating defense gets Bruins, Gators into final

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published April 3, 2006


INDIANAPOLIS - The Florida coaching staff didn't need to watch the television very long to figure out what UCLA's defense is like.

"They guard like Georgia with Arkansas' players," assistant coach Larry Shyatt said. "They really get after it."

Translation: stifling defense with talented athletes.

When Florida and UCLA, both 32-6, play tonight at the RCA Dome for the NCAA men's national basketball championship, it isn't expected to be a high-scoring affair that draws millions to their television sets. Instead, it most likely will be the quintessential example of that old coaches saying: "Defense wins championships."

"It's going to be a compelling matchup," ESPN analyst and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin said. "Both teams are solid defensively. Florida holds opponents to 40 (percent shooting) or less. UCLA plays kind of a stifling, stingy kind of defense.

"I think it's the team that's able to get easy baskets. With all the focus on defense, which no question is going to be a key element, it also is going to be who scores enough points. Vikings and Packers at Lambeau, frozen tundra."

The Gators and Bruins are on pace for the best scoring defense by a champion in six NCAA Tournament games. UCLA has allowed 52.8 points per game, the Gators 56.6. UCLA has held three of its five opponents to 45 points or fewer. Florida has not allowed more than 62.

"Right now, we're proving the notion that sharing the ball and playing good defense does win games, especially tournament games," UCLA freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute said.

UCLA enters on a 12-game win streak, the Gators a 10-gamer.

But they've done it with different styles. The Bruins have two starters who average in double figures, guards Jordan Farmar (13.4 points) and Arron Affalo (16.5). Florida brings five starters averaging in double figures and an offense that works inside the paint or shooting from the perimeter.

"This is fitting that in the national championship game we'll probably be playing against the most complete team we've faced all year," Affalo said. "Florida has proved it can score inside and out, so we'll just have to do the best job we can to defend them."

UCLA coach Ben Howland has preached defense since he arrived three years ago. It requires being physical, and in some ways, the players said, intimidating.

"(Opponents) know, "Every shot I take I'm going to have to work for it,"' Farmar said.

The Bruins' defensive strategy has been highly effective. They find ways to push opponents away from the basket, forcing them to start running their offense far beyond the 3-point arc.

"One of the things that's impressive about UCLA is they're very disciplined," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "They don't get out of their routine of what they do. ... We're moving towards that where we've been making it difficult for teams to score through the fact we've got length up in the front court and our back court players have done a pretty good job of containing the ball."

"We're going to have to execute really well and do whatever we've been doing all year. And that's be unselfish, take good shots because UCLA, their defense is crazy," forward Al Horford said. "They're just so good. The way they've been holding teams in the tournament, teams like Memphis, who's been scoring 90 a game, and shutting them down like that, it's just amazing. I really haven't seen anything like this."

UCLA will try to slow the tempo, hoping to keep Florida out of its fast-paced offense and stop the transition game. How well Florida adjusts will be key.

"You have to have a level of balance because you can't always win the way in which you want to play," Florida's Shyatt said. "So sometimes, you have to win the way in which your opponent wants to play. You can't just concede. And, thank goodness, we've shown an ability to do both this year."

Thank the SEC, the players said. Through 16 conference games and the SEC tournament, the Gators have seen a full range of defenses, which they believe will be their advantage tonight.

"We've seen every defense, every different type of person you can throw at us," senior forward Adrian Moss said.

The Gators have relied heavily on the play of their sophomore big men, 6-foot-8 Horford and 6-11 forward Joakim Noah, during the tournament. But in their national semifinal win over George Mason, the perimeter game made a difference. Junior guard Lee Humphrey had six 3-pointers, and he and sophomore forward Corey Brewer scored 19 points.

"I'm sure UCLA is very conscious of Lee, the way he has shot the basketball," Donovan said. "Again, they are a very good defensive team, and I don't think they are going to do anything, let's say, scheme-wise, to change their defensive principles and what they've done up to this point to shut him down. But there are ways to track him, eye him, to make sure he doesn't get off very many clean looks."

So look for this title to be won by ...

"Florida has a strength up front. UCLA has a strength in the backcourt," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. "But both teams are underrated in the other positions. Florida's backcourt is underrated. UCLA's frontline is underrated.

"That makes, hopefully, for a great matchup."