What just happened?
It's almost a half hour after the game, and it's still hard to contextualize how UCLA beat SMU 60-59 Thursday afternoon.
So many things went right for the Bruins in the last minute, starting with Bryce Alford firing up, and making, a desperation three down 59-52 with 1:06 to go. Later, after Norman Powell got fouled on a drive to the basket and made his two free throws, UCLA was down 59-57 with 29 seconds to go. After the inbounds, SMU inexplicably threw the ball into the hands of Thomas Welsh, who kicked it to Bryce Alford who called timeout with about 22 seconds left.
That's where reality starts to break down a bit.
After the timeout, UCLA has Powell dribble to the baseline and kick the ball to Bryce, who takes the ball out to the three point line and throws up an altogether unnecessary prayer (UCLA still had plenty of time to run more offense). The ball is clearly wide and long, but, somehow, an SMU player gets his hand on the ball some questionable distance from the hoop, and the officials somehow call goaltending. Then, Nic Moore, the SMU wunderkind who had thrust the Mustangs back into the game, somehow misses two fairly open potential game winners in the last six seconds.
It was a stunning finish for what was an altogether very strange game, and particularly a strange second half.
UCLA led 34-30 at the break, and you had to have the feeling that the Bruins were in control. Tony Parker hadn't played well, but Norman Powell was driving at will, Bryce Alford seemed hot, and UCLA's man defense, for once, seemed to be causing an opposing team some real issues. Then, the opening minutes of the second half seemed to confirm those thoughts -- despite Parker continuing to no-show, Powell continued to drive and Alford continued his hot shooting, giving UCLA a solid 10-point lead at 44-34. with about 12 minutes to go.
Then, again, things got weird. Over the next seven minutes and change, UCLA went scoreless, and the Mustangs ran off 19 unanswered points to give them a nine-point lead with 4:33 to go. There were many culprits for the long run by SMU, but generally, UCLA didn't run much of an offense during that period, showing off the team's glaring need for a true point guard, and Isaac Hamilton and Parker both played very poorly. UCLA settled for far too many no-pass jump shots with very little ball movement.
Parker's no-show was a real issue for UCLA. During the 19-0 run, UCLA tried to work the ball into him inside, but he was unable to do anything productive with it, and on defense, he repeatedly lost track of who he was supposed to be guarding on the interior. Thankfully, he's not as prone to these kinds of games as he used to be, but they still happen a bit too frequently for a staring junior. Thomas Welsh had some struggles of his own, particularly on defense, but his effort level was better and the defense and offense as a whole seemed to operate better with him on the court.
Powell played a very good game, and we're pretty glad the game ended in a win just so that Powell doesn't have to remember kicking the ball away as his last memory from the NCAA Tournament. Through the first half especially, he was basically unstoppable on his drives to the hoop, and with Parker playing poorly and Kevon Looney still hampered by the mask, his contributions were absolutely critical in UCLA having a lead through the first half.
Bryce Alford, as we said above, had an exceptionally hot shooting day. His shot selection, despite what the color commentator had to say on the subject, wasn't great, but he made basically everything he threw up. Down the stretch, his ability to hit threes was what made it even a game at the end, and it was probably a mistake for SMU to continue to leave the 5'9 Moore on him for so long. UCLA opted to use him off the ball for a good portion of the game, which seemed to free him up for more three-point looks.
Hamilton didn't have a good day, especially on defense during that 19-0 stretch, not rotating and oftentimes getting caught just watching the ball. When he was running the point at times, he struggled to initiate the offense, and turned the ball over five times. Looney still looks hampered by the mask, and it seemed to affect his jump shot, with all three of his three attempts way off the mark.
So, now, almost despite itself, UCLA will advance to the Round of 32 to face the #14 seed UAB -- a team UCLA already faced, and beat (88-76), earlier this year on a neutral court. The Blazers upset the much more dangerous Iowa State Cyclones, who had one of their worst performances of the year against UAB. With UAB advancing, the Bruins have a real chance to advance to the Sweet 16, with everything setting up for Steve Alford to repeat last season's finish in the NCAA Tournament.
And we're still not sure how it happened.
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