TAMPA, Fla.--In the solemn silence of the UCLA locker room, about the only thing you could hear were the sounds of tears hitting the floor and players scratching their heads.
The Bruins' season ended with a 73-65 loss to Florida on Saturday in the third round of the NCAA tournament at The St. Pete Times Forum, leaving the Bruins wondering how a game they played so well went so wrong.
This game was much closer than the final score would indicate. It was a see-saw battle most of the way, in fact, with 11 ties and 10 lead changes and UCLA was within a point at 66-65 with 1:17 to play.
But the Bruins made a series of seemingly innocuous mistakes that turned into glaring errors when put under the microscope of a close, well-played game in a pressure-packed environment and sent the Bruins home with no more games to play this season.
The most glaring misfortune came when No. 2-seeded Florida threw an inbound pass toward half court with 1:17 to play and UCLA guard Malcolm Lee took a chance on trying to make a steal. He missed, Florida's Erving Walker caught it, dribbled to the top of the key and swished a three-point, back-breaking basket that put Florida up 69-65 with 1:14 to play.
"Dumb decisions, just little mistakes on my behalf," Lee said. "They took advantage of me gambling at the end. It’s a 50-50 situation and I felt that happened the whole game. Every tiny little mistake we did, they capitalized on it. That’s the kind of game we were dealing with."
The Bruins never recovered from Walker's shot, failing to score the rest of the game. Lee was so shaken up that he missed the front end of one-and-one attempts twice in the final 26 seconds. Lee shoots nearly 80 percent on free throws.
But there were plenty of other plays that will haunt the Bruins until they take the court again in November. Joshua Smith, for instance, had an open alley-oop play out of a timeout, but landed and went up instead of catching and dunking in one motion.
The delay allowed Chandler Parsons enough time to recover and block the shot. Florida picked up the loose ball and Kenny Boynton made a three-point basket that broke a 55-55 tie with 6:26 to play. On the next play, Smith rushed an ill-advised when he was well defended, Florida got the rebound and Erik Murphy hit a three-pointer.
So, had Smith made the alley-oop, UCLA would have led by two. Instead, Florida turned it into a 6-0 run and led 61-55 with 5:49 to play and never trailed again. Before that, neither team had led by more than four points.
"It was a huge play because they got the block," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We were right here, point blank, having a chance to go up two if we score that basket and it was right there. I mean you can't get a better attempt than what we had there."
Smith, who took the loss about as hard as anyone, simply said "I came down and Parsons made a play. He just blocked me. He just made a good play."
There were others. Tyler Honeycutt, for instance, had a fast break layup attempt with 4:28 to play and UCLA trailing, 61-58. He missed, got the ball back and missed a three-pointer.
Florida got the ball, and the 5-8 Walker tried to drive past the 6-10 Smith, bumped into him and threw up a circus shot as he fell to the ground. The ball went in, adding a stroke of misfortune to UCLA's string of mistakes, and Florida had a 63-58 lead with 3:58 to play instead of a 61-60 lead had Honeycutt made that layup.
"I thought he fouled me," Walker said. "I felt a lot of contact so I just tried to get the ball to the rim and I was expecting a call, but I didn't get it and it luckily went in."
A few minutes later, Florida trapped UCLA point guard Lazeric Jones at midcourt and ended up forcing a turnover. The Bruins had handled Florida's trap well the entire game and had only eight turnovers for the game -- seven below their season average.
Florida scored again and took a 66-60 lead with 2:49 to play.
"We kept it close, they kept it close and nobody could get a run," UCLA forward Reeves Nelson said. "Just little things starting going their way at the right time and in a game like this, that made the whole difference."
Missed opportunities in transition played a key role in UCLA's loss. According to ESPN Stats and Information, UCLA failed to convert three transition opportunities in the final five minutes and scored on only two of 10 transition opportunities during the game.
"In this game we missed too many easy layups, too many open shots, too many turnovers and bad decisions at the wrong time," Honeycutt said. "I think in a way we gave them that game, even though they earned it, they deserve it, but I think we gave it away."
They did. One little mistake at a time.