- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Top-seeded Kansas worried UCLA would slow the pace in Saturday night's West Regional final. Instead, the Bruins came out and sped it up.
The Jayhawks worried they wouldn't be able to shoot 3-pointers against the Bruins' taller perimeter players. Kansas actually shot well from the perimeter, but couldn't make the easy shots.
In turn, the Bruins seemingly made every one of their tough shots in beating the Jayhawks 68-55 at HP Pavilion to advance to the Final Four in Atlanta, the second season in a row UCLA will have a chance to claim a record 12th national championship. It will be UCLA's NCAA-record 17th appearance in the Final Four.
While the Bruins proved they can easily change gears, running with the athletic Jayhawks in the first half and then slowing them down in the second, UCLA is going back to the Final Four because it has Arron Afflalo, a player who takes and makes shots when his team needs them most.
And, during the final 30 minutes of Saturday night's game, at least, the Jayhawks didn't have a player like Afflalo.
"Arron is a big-time player and big-time players make important shots in big games, on the big stage," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "I'm really proud of Arron. He's just so tough. You can see he's all about his team and he's all about winning."
After Bruins sophomore Josh Shipp nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to put UCLA ahead 35-31 at the half, Afflalo took the game over in the opening 12½ minutes of the second half. He scored 13 of the Bruins' first 17 points in the half, including two backbreaking shots at the shot-clock buzzer that deflated the Jayhawks. Afflalo put the Bruins ahead 40-33 with a 3-pointer over Brandon Rush with one second left on the shot clock, then buried an even deeper 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 49-40 with 10:18 to go.
Later, after Kansas cut UCLA's lead to 55-50 with less than five minutes remaining, Bruins point guard Darren Collison sank a 3-pointer over two Jayhawks defenders -- after he slipped -- as the shot clock expired once again.
"That was a huge lift, especially Darren's," Afflalo said. "Going up eight that late in the game, [no time] on the shot clock, a 3-pointer with two guys in his face, that was a beautiful thing to watch. That's one of the fortunate things about this team. We have three, four guys, including Josh [Shipp], who can make shots with the clock running down. Sometimes the execution doesn't work, so you have to have those types of players."
Collison's 3-pointer was especially damaging to the Jayhawks, who had battled back from an 11-point deficit after the Bruins had come up empty on four of their previous six possessions. With Collison trying to dribble around guards Russell Robinson and Rush and the shot clock about to expire, it seemed UCLA would fail to score again, but Collison flung the basketball in the air and the shot went in.
"All I was thinking about was throwing it up," Collison said. "That's what I was thinking. We needed a shot, so I took it and it went in. It was just one of those days where everybody was hitting big shots."
And it was one of those nights for the Jayhawks.
"The hoop was as big as the ocean for them," Kansas guard Mario Chalmers said. "They hit tough shots all night."
The Jayhawks, however, couldn't make much of anything. Even in the first half, when they ran up and down the floor and took a 27-21 lead on Rush's 3-pointer with 5:57 to play in the half, it seemed they should have been winning by a lot more. They attempted only one 3-pointer in the first 20 minutes and couldn't even connect consistently from close range, missing at least eight layups in the first half.
"I thought for the first 15 minutes, we played very, very well," Kansas coach Bill Self said. "We missed a lot of shots, but we got the ball where we wanted to get it. And then the last 25 minutes of the game, I felt like they controlled the game. Certainly, we missed some bunnies, but I think their presence had something to do with that."
Before Saturday's game, the Bruins talked about trying to run with the Jayhawks, but nobody seemed sure they'd really try to do it. After all, UCLA is known more for its half-court sets than its fast breaks. But UCLA proved it was as athletic and talented as Kansas -- and a lot more seasoned. Even though the Bruins committed a season-high 25 turnovers, they seemed much more comfortable at the frenetic pace.
"I think we got sped up," Self said. "I thought our guards were a little careless. We over-penetrated, over-bounced, and we should have been driving to dish or pitch more. But, you know, the kids were trying hard. Sometimes you can try too hard. I feel like we rushed some shots or maybe we didn't go as strong as we could with some particular shots."
After the Jayhawks scored on six of their first eight possessions of the game to go ahead 12-9, Howland used his longest timeout to try to calm his team down. But the Bruins kept running until after halftime, when Howland's adjustments seemed to collar them. Kansas scored only 24 points in the second half -- the Jayhawks' 55 overall were their fewest this season -- and took only 17 shots from the floor in the final 20 minutes.
"I was probably the one who was at fault for being a little too excited," Afflalo said. "Coach actually had to get on me a lot in that first half. In the second half, we did a great job of just being a little more patient, playing with a little more poise. You know, doing what we do."
Winning big games is what the Bruins seem to do best.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
First UCLA sped things up. Then the Bruins slowed things down. Then they hit several backbreaking shots to take out Kansas in the West regional final, writes Mark Schlabach.