College basketball’s most storied program, back in a place it once considered home. Somehow, it feels right. And that’s good, because otherwise the feel-good stories are gone. Mid-major George Mason finally went pumpkin, falling 73-58 to Florida in the night’s first semifinal. And now LSU, which has withstood the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, is done. “As happy as I am about winning, if we were to lose to anyone, I’d have wanted it to be LSU with everything the state has gone through,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. Howland, with his hyperactive substitutions and focus on details and defense and control, is no doubt headed for a big pay raise. And UCLA is headed for the national championship game. In the Bruins’ 12 previous trips to the final, they are 11-1. From the very start Saturday, UCLA looked the team ready to play. The Bruins were the team playing their game, clamping down defensively, disrupting the Tigers, making them look uncomfortable, confused, foreign. Defense is something UCLA has learned to count on, particularly in this tournament run, but the offense had not looked this smooth, this explosive throughout the postseason. The Bruins made eight of their first 11 shots, connected from the line and actually made a concerted effort to run. They pushed the ball like they haven’t in weeks. UCLA led by 12 barely eight minutes into the game. LSU was stunned, and never to recover. “I never saw this coming,” LSU’s Glen “Big Baby” Davis said. “They came out and punched us and we never recovered from it. “We were kind of shocked.” UCLA opened with Luc Mbah a Moute on Davis. Davis must have thought he looked like a pre-game snack. At 310, he had almost 90 pounds on Mbah a Moute. Yet it was the active freshman from Cameroon who was the most effective player on the floor all night. He led all scorers with 17 points, and all rebounders with nine. “My back hurts right now,” Mbah a Moute said. The Bruins pushed their lead to 16 points, saw four of their starters pick up two fouls and head to the bench in the final four minutes of the first half and used their reserves to take a 39-24 lead. The depth UCLA developed during a season of injuries was paying off. The Tigers wore down and had nothing much left to give. “That’s the best defense we’ve played all year,” Howland said. “We had things going right for us, too. We weren’t guarding them at the foul line.” LSU made only 13 of 28 free throws. It shot only 32 percent from the field. Davis, doubled by another UCLA big man every time he touched the ball, needed a couple of late baskets to finish 5 of 17 from the field before fouling out. LSU, known for turning up the defensive heat in the second half, saw Farmar spark the Bruins to an 11-3 run and it was game over. The Tigers looked beaten. They hung heads, put hands on hips, and coach John Brady seldom rose from the bench. There was no big run to come, no charge to make it close. UCLA led by as many as 24 points, made it look just too easy. “They were able to put us back on our heels early and we never could recover from it,” Brady said. The Bruins’ victory was so complete and came so early, it made for a dull second half. Play grew sloppy, the crowd got strangely quiet and started to leave the RCA Dome with more than 10 minutes left. The Tigers were left impotent, just another team that couldn’t find its game against a UCLA defense. Call it ugly, call it an odd style for a traditional UCLA team to play, but the Bruins are going back to the NCAA championship game. “I’m really living in the moment right now,” said UCLA senior Cedric Bozeman. “I’m trying to soak everything up.” Now there is more to absorb, a championship game to be played. UCLA needed a furious finish and some luck to beat Gonzaga in the Sweet 16. But it plays hard, makes its own luck, continues to get better. And good enough to be playing for it all. Steve Dilbeck’s column appears in the Daily News four times a week. He can be reached at [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! INDIANAPOLIS – Struggle to believe no more, fight the thought no longer. UCLA really is this good. The defense and depth and tenacity that skeptics were sure was some sleight of hand, some trick of fate, is all very real. UCLA is going to play for the national championship. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREOregon Ducks football players get stuck on Disney ride during Rose Bowl event And it absolutely earned it Saturday night, humbling a proud LSU team, handling the Tigers almost with ease, making one more statement to those sure the Bruins were not skilled enough to be one of the last two teams standing. UCLA started fast, controlled the game, commanded the stage, turned LSU into Washington State. In a battle of prized defenses, it was no contest. “We make teams do things they don’t normally do,” UCLA guard Jordan Farmar said. “They’re looking at each other, pointing fingers. “Sometimes their eyes get real big, like a deer in the headlights, like they don’t know what hit them.” The Bruins led by as many as 24 points in the second half, and then cruised. They won 59-45 – the same 45 points they held a talented Memphis team to last week in the Elite Eight – and now advance to meet the Florida Gators on Monday night for the NCAA championship.