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UCLA, beaten earlier by Gonzaga, to get new chance in NCAA tournament

UCLA, which lost to Gonzaga in December, will have defense put to test vs. Bulldogs in NCAA tournament Friday

More than three months ago, when UCLA played Gonzaga at Pauley Pavilion, the Bulldogs overwhelmed the Bruins with talent and experience. UCLA kept pace offensively, but on defense it had no answers.

After the 87-74 loss, UCLA Coach Steve Alford looked at Gonzaga as a target. If his team could, in time, match the Bulldogs' play that night, then perhaps the season could turn around.

"They've been there, they've done that, they've played in games that people are giving their best shot for," Alford said at the time. "These guys haven't."

Now, his team will have another chance. The Bulldogs' 87-68 win over Iowa in the NCAA tournament's third round on Sunday means the teams will meet in Houston on Friday in the South Regional semifinal. The winner will play for a Final Four berth.

The loss in December started a quick spiral for the Bruins. They lost their next four games, some in embarrassing fashion. Since then, though, they have improved gradually. The question is, have they improved enough to make up for their past deficiencies against Gonzaga?

Specifically, UCLA's defense will be put to the test.

The Bulldogs' success starts with their shooting. Their field-goal percentage and effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the fact that three-pointers are worth more than two-pointers) are both first in the country.

UCLA's preferred defensive strategy late in the season has been packing its defense in tight. That limits opportunities inside but has left the perimeter vulnerable. Southern Methodist and Alabama Birmingham each made well more than their season averages for three-pointers against the Bruins.

"You've got to pick your poison," UCLA point guard Bryce Alford said.

But Gonzaga is more lethal than either of those opponents.

Against Iowa, Gonzaga made 10 of 16 three-point attempts (62.5%) and shot 61.5% overall. Forward Kyle Wiltjer made 10 of 12 shots. On the season, point guard Kevin Pangos is a 44% three-point shooter.

Wiltjer, the 6-10 Kentucky transfer who makes 47% of his three-pointers, has been a nightmare for defenders. He scored 24 points, mostly on Kevon Looney, in December.

"If you gave them an open shot, they weren't going to miss it," Looney said.

In that game, Gonzaga displayed the full breadth of its offense. When Gonzaga burned the Bruins' zone with outside shots, UCLA went with man-to-man defense. But Gonzaga adapted. It pounded the ball inside to talented post players Przemek Karnowski (7 feet 1, 288 pounds) and Domantas Sabonis.

The Bulldogs' average height, more than 6-6, is 12th in the country, according to KenPom.com.

"We haven't seen that all year," Steve Alford said in December of Gonzaga's size. "Not even [North] Carolina."

The Bulldogs have plenty of scoring options. Their fourth-leading scorer, Byron Wesley, led USC in points last season before transferring. When needed, he can score in bunches.

After the loss to Gonzaga in December, Alford saw a way forward.

"We've got weaknesses, obviously," he said. "But if we can get tough, if we can really get tough and a little bit of nastiness to us, I think you'll see us, that water is going to rise, that tide is going to rise with this team. And that's going to be fun to watch."

It took all season, but the Bruins' tide is finally rising. They'll find out just how far on Friday.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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