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March 26, 2007
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Arron Afflalo is getting just what he wanted - another shot at Florida.
The UCLA star has vivid memories of the Gators' 73-57 victory over the Bruins in the NCAA championship game last spring, and they aren't pleasant.
"It was horrible, not the game itself, but the thought of losing," Afflalo said Monday on a conference call. "Winners and people who do things special are never forgotten. Second-best is not good enough. It was very painful that night."
Even a year later, Afflalo doesn't appear to see the upside concerning what his team accomplished on its first trip to the Final Four since 1995.
"I hate to lose and I like to win. I hate losing more than I like winning," he said. "I'm very competitive when it comes to a lot of things, but especially basketball. No one was happy with the season we had last year, especially with the effort in that last game."
The Bruins (30-5) and Gators (33-5) meet again Saturday, this time in the national semifinals at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta after Ohio State (34-3) faces Georgetown (30-6). The winners play Monday night for the championship.
"Now that it's here, it's a great thing," Afflalo said of playing Florida again. "It gives us a chance to kill two birds with one stone in a sense - a chance at revenge and moving toward the championship.
"Obviously to play the team that beat you in the championship game adds a little incentive, a little motivation for you. Hopefully we feed off that as a team and use that to our advantage."
Bruins coach Ben Howland said his team played its best game of the season in beating Kansas 68-55 to reach the Final Four.
"We have to play better because we're playing the best team in the country," he said of Saturday's matchup. "It's going to be very difficult. We have to take it to a new level to have a chance to advance."
The Gators have all five starters back from last year, and all are averaging in double figures. They're especially dominant inside with a front line of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. Floor general Taurean Green and 3-point specialist Lee Humphrey man the outside.
"What they've done all year with the bulls-eye squarely on their chest all year is amazing," Howland said. "I think they're definitely better than they were a year ago."
Then again, the Bruins might be, too.
"I hope so. We should be," Howland said. "We're more experienced with players who have been here now for their second or third years. We still don't have a senior.
"Hopefully we're a little tougher than we were a year ago. The experience of a year ago helped us all year long."
In Afflalo and sophomore Darren Collison, the Bruins have one of the country's best backcourts. Forward Josh Shipp and backup Michael Roll give them additional perimeter threats, with Lorenzo Mata, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and reserve Alfred Aboya supplying strength on the inside.
The Bruins lead with defense, having held their four tournament opponents to an average of 50 points per game. Last year, they held three of their first five opponents to 45 points or less, but the Gators scored 36 in the first half while taking an 11-point lead.
"We just have to do a better job of being focused at that end, more aggressive," Afflalo said, adding the Bruins were "a little passive" on defense against the Gators last year.
Howland called Noah and Horford "the best big-man tandem on the same team that I can remember."
And that was just the beginning.
"They really don't have any weaknesses," Howland said. "I think all their players have improved. They shoot 40 percent on 3s; in my mind, that's like shooting 60 percent from 2s. They outboard their opponents by eight per game, which is outstanding.
"They have inside game, outside game, shooting. They have an outstanding bench, and they're very, very well-coached. They're the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament for a good reason."
Howland said he watched film of last year's UCLA-Florida game on Sunday.
And what did he see?
"Just that we were dominated," Howland replied. "It was hard to watch - we were not very good and they were very good."
The Bruins have won 11 NCAA championships in 16 previous appearances at the Final Four. Both are all-time bests.
"We will be the underdog," Howland said. "We'll be the road team more than anybody. I'm sure they'll be many times more Gator fans there than our fans. It's a lot harder when you can't drive there. It's just harder when you're playing this far away."
And, he might have added, sweeter if you get the job done.