- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The first team in the Sweet 16 is the one nobody thought should even be in the NCAA tournament.
The UCLA Bruins' signature moment before last week was their infamous no-show against Kentucky in December -- a game in which they were outscored 24-0 to start and trailed 41-7 at halftime. A lack of many other big wins left the Bruins with a paper-thin résumé at the end of the season, and a lightning rod for criticism on Selection Sunday.
Yet Steve Alford's team is going to the tournament's second weekend for a second straight year, thanks to a rapidly improved inside-outside attack and some hot shooting from a guy who shares the coach's last name. After surviving against SMU and then blowing the doors off UAB, the No. 11-seed Bruins are one of the biggest surprises in the bracket so far. And they might not be done yet.
Star of the first weekend: Point guard Bryce Alford will always be compared to his dad, and right now he's doing a pretty strong impersonation. The sophomore hit a school tournament-record nine 3-pointers in just 11 attempts in the win over SMU, finishing with nearly half his team's points. UAB made a concerted effort to run Alford off the 3-point line Saturday, but Alford responded by distributing and finding other ways to contribute, finishing with five assists and just two turnovers. He also still managed to score 22 points, giving him 49 in the two games at the KFC Yum! Center. There are few guys left in the tournament you'd want taking a big outside shot in crunch time.
The big moment in Louisville: Of course, UCLA could have made an early exit if not for a call that went in its favor. After giving up a late 19-0 run and falling behind SMU on Thursday, Alford threw up a long 3-pointer over two defenders with 10 seconds left. SMU's Yanick Moreira was called for goaltending. There have been good arguments on both sides whether that call was the correct one, but of course Steve Alford agreed with it. Sometimes you need some breaks to move on in this tournament, and credit the Bruins for taking full advantage of it.
What's next: UCLA heads to Houston in the South Regional, where it will take on Gonzaga, which beat the Bruins 87-74 in December in Pauley Pavilion. Gonzaga fans, of course, still remember the heartbreaking loss to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet 16, the one that left Adam Morrison in tears. The Bruins would need Kevon Looney and Tony Parker, who were terrific against UAB, to continue their improvement and battle against Gonzaga's front line.
1164dEamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf