Published March 30, 2008
PHOENIX – After reaching the Final Four for the third straight time, UCLA coach Ben Howland called these Bruins "by far the best" of the three.
The other two didn't have freshman Kevin Love, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds as the top-seeded Bruins blitzed Xavier 76-57 Saturday to earn their record 18th overall trip to the Final Four.
Love was picked as the most outstanding player of the West Regional.
"Obviously, it's unbelievable," Howland said after taking the last few snips of the net. "That's really a credit to how good the players are and how well we performed under pressure the last three years."
It's the Bruins' longest string of Final Four appearances since they closed the John Wooden era with nine straight trips and added a 10th consecutive trip in 1976 under his successor, Gene Bartow.
The Bruins' 1980 Final Four was later vacated by the NCAA because of rules violations.
At times on Saturday, Howland's Bruins looked every bit as dominant as Wooden's finer squads, annihilating a proud Xavier team that had set a school record for victories.
The Bruins (35-3) lost in the Final Four the last two years. But they go to San Antonio with Love, who has given them a formidable inside presence and has raised his game in this tournament.
UCLA plays the Memphis-Texas winner in the national semifinal in San Antonio on April 5.
"We're getting spoiled with Kevin," Howland said.
Love made 7-of-11 shots from the floor, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc. Half of his rebounds came at the offensive end and he added four assists for good measure.
"He looks like he's 25 years old when he's playing," Xavier coach Sean Miller said of Love, who is 19.
The Musketeers (30-7) had no answer for Love on a day they shot 36.2 percent from the floor — a credit to UCLA's relentless man-to-man defense.
"We can play better than we did today," Miller said. "I couldn't be more proud and really at ease right now because I really felt we went about as far as we could and lost to a great team. They're unique. I'm really pulling for them. I hope we lost to the national champion."
The knock on UCLA is that it often coasts with a big lead. Not this time.
Leading by nine at halftime, the Bruins snuffed out third-seeded Xavier's comeback hopes with a 14-0 run early in the second half.
"It all started with defense," Love said. "That's what really won the game for us."
The rest of the game was one long advertisement for the powder blue and gold, with a partisan crowd rocking U.S. Airways Center with chants of "U-C-L-A!"
After the game, the same fans serenaded Love with chants of "one more year!" as he gave an interview along press row.
This wasn't the time for Love, projected as a high NBA pick, to address his future.
"It feels great but we've got business to take care of next week and I'm not even thinking about the next level right now," Love said. "I'm living in the now, living in the present."
The now is pretty cool if you're a Bruin.
UCLA had flirted with trouble in the previous two rounds, surviving upset bids by ninth-seeded Texas A&M and No. 12-seeded Western Kentucky. After the too-tight victory over the Hilltoppers, Love called the Bruins' play "unacceptable."
But against Xavier they reverted to the form that made them a No. 1 seed.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute had 13 points and 13 rebounds and Darren Collison added 19 points for UCLA, which shot 53.8 percent from the floor and won its 14th straight.
Derrick Brown had 13 points for Xavier.
This matched Xavier's deepest foray into the NCAA brackets. The Musketeers had reached the regional final once before, in 2004.
Early on, Xavier looked as if it might be able to hang with UCLA. After turning the ball over a season-high 19 times in the third round, the Bruins had 10 turnovers in the first half on Saturday.
But the Musketeers only scored two points off those turnovers — and it cost them when UCLA finally settled down.
Leading 24-20, the Bruins closed the first half on a 9-4 run. The leader of the charge was Mbah a Moute, who has been slowed by a sprained ankle.
Mbah a Moute scored five straight points, all of them as a result of some gritty work on the offensive boards.
"All I can tell you is I didn't have any pain," Mbah a Moute said.
Then Collison dribbled down the clock and hit a jumper over Stanley Burrell, the Atlantic 10's Defensive Player of the Year, to send the Bruins into the dressing room with a 33-24 lead.
The biggest bucket may have come when Love pulled down an offensive rebound on a missed free throw, then fired the ball to Collison loitering beyond the arc. Collison hit the 3-pointer and UCLA led 43-28.
A few minutes later, Love buried a 3-pointer and the Bruins led by 20.