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Tony Parker leads UCLA into Sweet 16

UCLA advances to NCAA tournament Sweet 16 for the second consecutive year

Nearly everything had gone right for Tony Parker on Saturday. UCLA had dispatched Alabama Birmingham, 92-75, and was headed to an NCAA regional semifinal for the second year in a row. Parker had scored a career-high 28 points.

The day couldn't have gone much better. So, as Parker was finishing up an interview on the court with CBS' Allie LaForce, he decided to take one more chance.

"Nice bracelet, by the way," he said to LaForce, five years his senior and married to the Angels' Joe Smith, before scampering off to the locker room.

The 11th-seeded Bruins have come a long way in the past week. Nearly all experts had predicted they would miss the NCAA tournament field entirely. On Saturday, they were the first team to move on to the South Regional semifinal, in Houston, where they will face the Iowa-Gonzaga winner.

Parker, too, had come a long way since a lethargic performance against Southern Methodist in the second round. For the first time all season, he sat in the decisive minutes while UCLA used four late Bryce Alford three-pointers and one controversial goaltending call to squeak by.

"I sat out at the end of this game too," Parker said after the Bruins defeated the 14th-seeded Blazers.

But this time, it was because he powered UCLA to a safe lead.

This is the performance teammates were hoping for when, before the game, they'd provoked him.

Parker is normally gregarious and quick to joke, "a character," Bryce Alford said. So, Alford explained, "You've got to get under his skin a little bit."

Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney gave him a harsh assessment of his game against SMU.

"I was like, 'Man, don't play like a bum like you did,' " Hamilton said.

Parker played with an edge Saturday. Powell had challenged him to get 30 points and 10 rebounds. He stayed in Parker's face for much of the game.

"I don't know what toothpaste he uses," Parker joked afterward. "But it wasn't effective."

Parker didn't miss Powell's target by much: He finished with 28 and 12.

It was Parker who countered UAB's early barrage of three-pointers that gave the Blazers a six-point lead. Guard Robert Brown scored 25 points total.

Parker responded with eight straight points for UCLA. By halftime UCLA led by nine, and the Blazers never got closer than six points after the break.

"When he's like that," Powell said. "I think nobody can stop us."

UAB had shocked third-seeded Iowa State in the second round by outrebounding the Cyclones by 15. There would be no repeat. Behind Parker and Looney, UCLA won the rebound battle, 41-26. Looney also had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.

The Bruins outscored UAB 52-22 in the paint, largely because Parker and Looney were seldom double-teamed. Parker, already riled up, was confounded by the strategy.

"The coach decided not to. That was him and his staff's decision," Parker said. "Good luck with it."

The Bruins just kept pounding it inside. Alford put up 11 of UCLA's 20 three-pointers against SMU, but the Bruins took only nine Saturday, making five.

UAB Coach Jerod Haase said his team ran out of ideas defensively in losing to the Bruins for the second time this season. Every UCLA starter finished in double digits. Alford had 22 points with five assists, Hamilton scored 13 with seven assists and Powell scored 15.

"We were not able to solve it," Haase said. "We tried man. We tried zone. We tried man. We tried zone. We tried some different wrinkles, but at the end of the day, we were not able to guard."

Afterward, there was no more need to prod Parker — "He came out and shut me up," Looney said. — so UCLA could be complimentary.

UCLA Coach Steve Alford said Parker's presence inside opened up the perimeter. He complimented the way Parker used his size.

"When he does that, he's a big load. You're looking at 6-9, 265," Alford said. He paused. "Since he's not in here, 275."

The Bruins could afford to laugh. They have been, perhaps, the most scrutinized team of the tournament.

UCLA's players have been asked constantly about those who have questioned their selection. Their win over SMU has been dissected because of the late goaltending call.

"They're going to say whatever they want," Bryce Alford said. "But when you look back on it, we've been to the Sweet 16 last year and we're here again this year. That doesn't just happen. You've got to win games."

Now, the Bruins are two more away from the Final Four.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

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