- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 2, 2006

INDIANAPOLIS — UCLA’s basketball team wasn’t supposed to contend for a national title quite so soon. With a reserve of athletic, young talent, the Bruins seemed like a perfect team to make a deep NCAA tournament run a season from now.

Next year, though, has arrived a season early in Westwood.

Freshman forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute scored 17 points as the second-seeded Bruins advanced to their first title game since 1995 with a 59-45 defeat of Louisiana State at the RCA Dome.

“That’s the best defense we played all year,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.

It was the 12th straight victory for UCLA (32-6), which will meet third-seeded Florida (32-6) in tomorrow night’s championship game.

Glen Davis had 14 points to lead the equally youthful Tigers (27-9), who were making their first Final Four appearance since 1986.

“We were kind of shocked at being down,” Davis said. “We just couldn’t get up and they just kept on fighting. It just didn’t go our way tonight.”

As has been the case for much of the season, the Bruins won with a stifling defense that has been a hallmark of Howland’s career. UCLA was impressive in dispatching Memphis 50-45 in the regional final, and the Bruins were touted as a defense-first team when they arrived in the Midwest.

But talk throughout the week had centered on fourth-seeded Louisiana State’s talented inside tandem of 6-foot-9, 215-pound Tyrus Thomas and the 6-9, 310-pound Davis, the latter the SEC’s player of the year.

In response, the 6-7, 224-pound Mbah a Moute didn’t give Davis much room to play, limiting his touches and making it nearly impossible for him to shoot when he did gain possession.

“My back hurts right now,” Mbah a Moute said. “He’s big.”

Thomas, a monstrously athletic freshman whose profile has blossomed during the tournament, encountered similar difficulty, and he barely played in the second half.

Thomas finished with five points in 17 minutes as the Tigers registered the lowest output in a Final Four game since Wisconsin had 41 points against Michigan State in the 2000 semifinals.

The Tigers were held to a point-a-minute pace for much of the game. Louisiana State stumbled to a 55-31 deficit with nine minutes remaining and only managing to trim it to 57-35 four minutes later Mbah a Moute, whose central African roots coupled with the presence of countryman and teammate Alfred Aboya prompted nearly a full section of UCLA fans to don “Cameroon Crazie” T-shirts, was particularly effective all over the floor. The Mbah a Moute, who leads the Bruins in rebounding, grabbed nine boards against the Tigers, who struggled in that facet of the game (42-33 edge for UCLA) as well as with their shooting (32 percent).

Often lost in the discussion of UCLA’s other impressive underclassmen — notably sophomore guards Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar — Mbah a Moute made quite an impression in the Bruins’ first Final Four game in 11 years.

“I told him at the beginning of the year how good he would be, and that he doesn’t even know that,” Farmar said. “That’s the scary part. He has no clue. He’s just out there as hard as he possibly can and trying to get better.”

The victory was a bit of exorcism for the Bruins, a program that has struggled mightily in recent tournament appearances in Westwood legend John Wooden’s home state. UCLA lost to Princeton in the first round of the 1996 tournament in Indy, then fell three years later in the same building to Detroit in its tournament opener.

The Bruins quickly assumed command, darting to a 12-4 lead when Afflalo made a 3-pointer coming out of the under-16 timeout. The Tigers could never piece together an extended run, though they pulled within 25-16 after trailing by double digits for much of a four-minute stretch.

Mbah a Moute helped dash any chance of a Louisiana State comeback, converting a pair of baskets early in the second half to bump the lead to 43-24. Farmar’s 3-pointer as the shot clock expired with 15:52 remaining effectively ended it, putting the Bruins up 48-27 on the stunned Tigers.

UCLA eventually built a 55-31 lead, more than enough to withstand the Tigers’ limited charge. The Bruins made only one more shot from the floor in the final 10:18, but it hardly mattered since they methodically milked the shot clock on nearly every possession the rest of the way.

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