Bryce Alford has a tell.
Tony Parker knows it. He has played with Alford longer than any other Bruin, and he recognizes what to look for late in the game, with the clock running down — just like it was in UCLA's dramatic 87-84 win over No. 7 Arizona on Thursday at Pauley Pavilion.
Alford gives a stutter. He bobs his head. If he does that, Parker said, you know he's going to shoot.
Score too, most likely.
Take the end of Thursday's first half. Alford stuttered. He bobbed his head. He made a three-pointer. The crowd stood. Next possession: Stutter. Head bob. Three-pointer, good, as the clock expired.
So there was no mystery for Parker at the end of the game, on UCLA's last possession. UCLA had once held a 14-point lead. It had vanished. The score was tied, and the Bruins needed someone to salvage the game.
“I already knew he was going to take that shot,” Parker said.
Alford used a pick-and-roll to create space, then launched a three-pointer. It went in with 1.8 seconds left and UCLA won.
The victory continued an enigmatic season. The Bruins (10-6, 1-2 Pac-12) have beaten then-top-ranked Kentucky, then-No. 20 Gonzaga and now No. 7 Arizona (13-2, 1-1).
But they have lost easy games. They are 3-3 against the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) top 50 and 2-3 against the next 100. The inconsistency put them at risk of falling to 0-3 in the conference.
“We knew this was a must-win,” Alford said. Later, he added, “Probably the biggest shot of my career.”
Said UCLA Coach Steve Alford: “We kind of got our mojo back.”
After the shot, Bryce Alford wheeled toward the sideline. UCLA had declared Thursday “Russell Westbrook Night.” After the game, Steve Alford and the players all wore eyeglasses, sans lenses, that mimicked Westbrook's.
“And I turned around, and he was just screaming at me,” Bryce Alford said.
It was quite a turnaround. Moments earlier, UCLA was in danger of coughing away the game.
Early on, UCLA had shown intensity that had been lacking last weekend in Washington. Bryce Alford pounded the floor. Aaron Holiday pounded his chest. At one point, Holiday sliced into the lane for a layup, then stole the inbound pass and scored again. Alford's late three-pointers gave UCLA a seven-point lead at the break.
Early in the second half, UCLA zoomed to 10-0 run. With 2:33 left, the Bruins led by 10.
But Arizona scored 10 points in less than two minutes, the last on a three-point play by Kadeem Allen.
“It felt like, oh great, we're going to let this one slip away,” Steve Alford said.
UCLA called timeout with 11 seconds left. In the huddle, UCLA called a simple pick-and-roll.
“We wanted the ball in Bryce's hands,” Steve Alford said.
Alford has relished the role. Last season, he conjured a victory for UCLA late in its NCAA tournament game against Southern Methodist. In a loss to Washington on Friday, he made three dramatic three-pointers.
But for most of that trip, he had been cold. He and Parker had been especially sluggish in a disappointing loss Sunday to Washington State.
So Steve Alford challenged both. On the plane back, he texted his son. He told him he hadn't played well. He needed to be tougher.
Both players responded Thursday. Parker scored 14 points with 12 rebounds, to keep up with Arizona's Ryan Anderson, who had 15 and 15.
All three starting UCLA guards had six assists, and Alford scored 25 points on nine-for-18 shooting.
“He dominated the game,” Arizona Coach Sean Miller said.
He had confidence. Still, on the final play, Bryce Alford said, if he drew a double team, he would pass to Parker.
But Parker knew better. He just watched as Alford dribbled off the screen, stuttered and bobbed his head.