- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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"It was the seventh-place game," Bruins forward Kevon Looney said. "I don't think anybody was there watching. We were just playing."
No one could have imagined then, or even a few days ago, that these same two teams would be battling it out for the right to go to the Sweet 16. UCLA lost most of its high-profile games and barely (some would say wrongly) squeaked into the NCAA tournament, while the Blazers finished the regular season 16-15.
Yet one of these double-digit seeds will be advancing on to next weekend. March, huh?
Key to the game: Who will control the glass? UAB’s upset of No. 3 seed Iowa State on Thursday was fueled largely by its work on the backboards, because the Blazers won the rebounding edge 52-37 and grabbed 19 extra possessions on the offensive end. Rebounding was one of UCLA’s strengths all season, as the Bruins led the Pac-12 in offensive rebounds per game. Keep a particular eye on the battle between freshman big men Looney and UAB's William Lee, who figure to be jostling to corral most missed shots. Since both teams are prone to prolonged scoring droughts, getting a few easy putbacks could make the difference.
Player to watch: Bryce Alford. The Bruins’ sophomore guard did something on Thursday not even his famous father, UCLA head coach Steve Alford, ever pulled off. He made nine 3-pointers, most ever by a UCLA player in a tournament game, in just 11 attempts. The younger Alford scored nearly half of his team’s 60 points, and his final, desperate heave counted as the game winner when SMU’s Yanick Moreira was called for goaltending. It's easy to say UAB’s defense must shadow Alford at all times, but the Bruins run him through multitudes of picks and he has a quick release. "With him in particular, you have to be there on the catch," UAB coach Jerod Haase said. "You can't get caught up on the screens. You can't get off balance. You can't anticipate. You can't try and take shortcuts. You have to be there on the catch and then challenge from there."