The Bruins called for an old school tradition after defeating the top-ranked Wildcats, players’ clapping hands and outstretched arms spilling into the aisle.
“We told the flight attendants, we told the pilots, they were all ready to go and we were like ‘Nah-nah-nah-nah, wait a minute,’” UCLA Coach Steve Alford recalled Thursday, “so we had to have an eight-clap before we took off.”
The buzz around the Bruins is intensifying after their rise to No. 2 in the Associated Press rankings for the first time in nearly a decade. They returned home to face a media contingent more than double its usual size. Shooting guard Bryce Alford said that fellow students offered congratulations for beating Kentucky, though it was a kind of noise some players could do without.
“I don’t really like the attention like that,” point guard Lonzo Ball said, “so I walk around with a hoodie on and just try to stay warm.”
Ball had already kept the decibel level down against the Wildcats by holding his finger to his lips to shush the crowd after making a three-pointer in the second half.
“It just came natural, you know,” Ball said. “I didn’t think about it, I just did it.”
The Bruins returned home intent on enjoying the moment while remaining mindful that they’ve done nothing more than win their first nine games, which represents roughly a quarter of the season. Bryce Alford said he told his teammates that it was time to move on once they resumed practice at Pauley Pavilion, where they will face Michigan on Saturday evening.
“There’s not a whole lot of teams that can go into Rupp Arena and win a game, so we’re enjoying it, we definitely celebrated on that plane ride home,” Alford said, “but as soon as we got back here on the court, I made sure to make sure the guys are ready to go for Saturday.”
UCLA is expecting its biggest crowd of the season against the Wolverines. The game is nearly sold out, but walk-up tickets are expected to be available depending on student turnout, which should be lower than usual with the Bruins starting winter break.
While the Bruins acknowledged that the size of the target on their backs has grown considerably, they also have set their sights on something new: overtaking Villanova for No. 1.
Said Ball: “Obviously, you want to be the best.”
Said Bryce Alford: “That’s definitely a goal.”
Said forward TJ Leaf: “We definitely want it.”
UCLA’s new run-and-fun mentality carried over to the balance of its flight home from Kentucky. Players who usually conk out before takeoff stayed up chatting and watching highlights from the game such as big man Ike Anigbogu’s monstrous put-back dunk, happily reliving the memories of a lifetime.
It was the second time in the same day the Bruins had made their coach proud.
“I want the guys enjoying winning and understanding what that feels like,” Steve Alford said, “so that when you get punched in the mouth, you don’t like that very much and you understand the two different tastes.”
The Bruins already know the destination of the final plane they hope to board this season: the Final Four.
“That’s still the goal,” Bryce Alford said. “We’ve been talking about trying to get to Phoenix.”
Steve Alford said that forward Alex Olesinski (foot) was about 10 days to two weeks from returning and guard Prince Ali (knee) was about two to three weeks from returning. Neither player has made his season debut.