Bruins back in upper echelon of college hoops

SAN DIEGO — For the second time this weekend, UCLA halted a team on a hot streak in the NCAA Tournament. 

But more importantly, for the first time in six years, the Bruins advanced past the first two rounds to reach the Sweet 16, effectively putting them back in the realm of college basketball’s upper echelon. The No. 4 Bruins downed Tournament darlings Stephen F. Austin, the 12 seed in the South Region, 77-60 Sunday afternoon at Viejas Arena in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. 

It was the first time UCLA has made it past the Round of 32 since 2008 — the last Final Four season. The Bruins will face No. 1 Florida on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.

"It’s a special thing," said UCLA head coach Steve Alford. "We started this thing almost one year to the date. We started recruiting these guys in the locker room and I appreciate them giving us an opportunity to coach them and trust us as a new staff. That’s never an easy thing to do."

"You want to win for that guy," said forward Tony Parker. "He worked so hard for us, and he really cares about us."

UCLA (28-8) snapped a streak of 29-straight games with the Lumberjacks (32-3), a remarkable feat, but are now intending to start their own. The final game of the regular season was the last loss they endured, on the road at Washington State. UCLA has won its last five straight and seven of last eight.

They’ve done so on a combination of ball security, an up-tempo offense and a zone defense, something Alford jokes that his former college coach, Bob Knight, a man-to-man devotee, might not be too proud of. 

"Coach (Knight) probably isn’t too thrilled about as much zone as we played but it has been really good for us," Alford said. "Something late in the year, maybe the Washington State game, I have no idea but since that game we have really defended well. We have had other game where we have defended well and that zone is a big part of it."

It’s been effective: The Lumberjacks shot just 35.1 percent for the game and were forced into bad shots and the Bruinswere able to get out into transition and run. 

The Lumberjacks did not want to run, nor could they run, nearly as fast as UCLA.

"We have guys that run like horses out in transition," said guard Kyle Anderson. "We did a good job of running in transition and we’ve become such an unselfish team that it’s fun out here to play."

While the ‘Jacks proved to be a favorable matchup, history says the next one is not.

Florida has broken more Bruin hearts than any other team in the last eight years. The Gators knocked off UCLA in the Final Four in 2006 en route to winning the championship. In 2011, the Gators again met with the Bruins and were victorious, taking them out in the second round. 

"I’m just learning all that," Alford said. "All I can tell you about Florida other than they’re extremely well-coached and when you talk about cultures, they’ve got a terrific culture there and a culture of winning and doing it on the national stage."