- The Washington Times - Friday, March 30, 2007

ATLANTA — The defining image of the 2006 national championship game is probably Florida forward Joakim Noah swatting shot after shot after shot as the Gators smoked UCLA 73-57 for their first NCAA title.

Perhaps that isn’t right. Maybe it should be the sight of Bruins guard Arron Afflalo.

Don’t remember Afflalo’s work that night? That’s OK.

He was rendered nearly invisible and scored only 10 points as he was hounded for nearly all of his 32 minutes by 6-foot-9 forward Corey Brewer.

This year’s tournament has brought a twist: A second shot for Afflalo and the Bruins (30-5) against Brewer and the Gators (33-5) in tonight’s second national semifinal, a chance Afflalo is determined not to squander.

“It wasn’t so much him,” the 6-foot-5 junior said yesterday at the Georgia Dome. “It was more so my mind-set, the way I approached it. That passive nature isn’t going to get it done in those types of games.”

Afflalo was anything but passive this season. He has averaged 16.9 points, was named the Pac-10’s player of the year and a first team All-American and was the MVP of last week’s West regional, where he scored 24 points to lift the second-seeded Bruins past Kansas and into their second straight Final Four.

Of course, the return trip has ensured reminders of UCLA’s stumble — and Afflalo’s 3-for-10 performance from the floor against the Gators.

“It was hurtful. All along the way, people said you had great success and a wonderful season,” Afflalo said. “It’s great being back to this point, but second-place teams are soon forgotten. There’s no mystery about it. If you want to be remembered, you want have to finish on top.”

He has done everything possible to ensure he is. He came back to UCLA when fellow guard Jordan Farmar bolted for the NBA, opting to team with sophomores Darren Collison and Josh Shipp to help the Bruins remain a potent perimeter team.

Afflalo also remains the same defensive presence he was a year ago, when the Bruins shut down team after team on the way to the final before Florida flummoxed them with its inside play.

“Our whole team had a problem with Florida,” coach Ben Howland said. “They thoroughly dominated that game, and you have to credit their whole team. Arron was definitely motivated more than anything by the loss of his team to come back. He’s better off the bounce; he continues to do a better job reading screens, a better job of playing without the basketball.”

The effect has rippled throughout the Bruins’ roster.

Collison, a first-year starter, has thrived with such a potent threat on the wing. Shipp, who missed nearly all of last year with a hip injury, re-emerged as a steady scorer without the hassle of being the top target for opponents to dwell on.

Afflalo’s presence also has kept pressure off UCLA’s frontcourt of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata, who have combined for nearly as many rebounds (13) as points (15) a game.

“He’s our leader, and that’s the bottom line,” Mbah a Moute said. “He makes everybody better on the team.”

In turn, it has put him closer to a larger place in the Bruins’ storied history. Eleven national title banners hang at Pauley Pavilion, and there are few programs where the past provides a benchmark anywhere close to the one existing in Westwood.

“When I was recruited, I wasn’t recruited to win 15 games, win 18 games or win 30 games,” Afflalo said. “I was recruited to win a national championship. That’s part of the deal.”

Afflalo recalled yesterday the pain and anger of watching Florida celebrate its title at the Bruins’ expense, but insisted that time was over. There was no yearning for another meeting with the Gators, no insistence upon a second chance.

But he knew a rematch with the Gators — and, in turn, Brewer — was possible when the tournament committee paired the teams’ regions on Selection Sunday. And that gives him a chance to leave his own indelible image on this year’s Final Four and his own program.

“Well, I wasn’t searching for it, but now that it’s here, it’s here,” Afflalo said. “And I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

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