For UCLA basketball, loss in Sweet 16 to Gonzaga more a start than end

Bill Plaschke: UCLA is eliminated from NCAA tournament by Gonzaga, 74-62, but doesn't feel like the end

They slowly picked themselves up off the stadium floor, off the final moments of their season, and stood in line for the last time.

Norman Powell was in front, his cheeks stained with tears. Tony Parker was in the back, his eyes glazed with frustration. As the UCLA basketball team slowly filed past victorious Gonzaga for postgame handshakes Friday night at NRG Stadium, the Bruins were crying, sweating and staggering.

But it was the last week in March, and they were still standing, and for now, that is enough.

In their 74-62 defeat to Gonzaga in the Sweet 16, the Bruins lost a game but laid a foundation. They ended a season but started a journey. They were done, yet there is still a real sense they are just beginning.

"To come so far from where we started ... .that's something you've got to take, and you have to remember," said Bryce Alford.

On a bruising night when they owed no apologies to a nation of disbelievers, the Bruins will do both.

They will first remember a game in which they pushed the heavily favored Bulldogs to within a point early in the second half before being steamrolled by Gonzaga's experience, depth and size. Particularly size. Serious size. Did you see those two huge blond-haired dudes throwing blue jerseys halfway to Galveston? Przemek Karnowski and Domantas Sabonis — yeah, Lakers fans, he's Arvydas' kid — combined for 30 points, 17 rebounds and dozens of Bruin gasps.

"A 7-1, 300-pounder throws a behind-the-back bounce pass," said Bryce Alford, still wide-eyed long afterward. "You don't see that very often."

Next, the Bruins will take those memories and build on them toward a UCLA future that hasn't been this bright since Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Luc Mbah a Moute walked off the floor in San Antonio seven years ago.

In Ben Howland's final five years after that last Final Four, the Bruins never went back to the Sweet 16. Steve Alford is already two-for-two in his UCLA career with a good chance at building a much better team for next season.

Powell will leave and lottery-bound freshman Kevon Looney probably will too, but taking their place will be three top recruits — power forward Jonah Bolden from Australia, big guard Prince Ali from Florida, and point guard Aaron Holiday, Jrue's brother from Campbell Hall High.

"I'm more than happy to say this program is going in the right direction," said Powell. "These coaches have done a great job of laying a foundation.''

Strengthening that foundation will be seasoned guards Alford and Isaac Hamilton, four-year veteran Parker, and maturing big men Gyorgy Goloman and Thomas Welsh.

They will be more versatile, more athletic, and much deeper than this year's team, which many considered to be hopeless even before the year began. Remember? They had lost five players to professional basketball, a couple of others to academic and eligibility issues, and then they promptly went on a five-game losing streak that included a 24-0 deficit to Kentucky, 19 consecutive missed shots by Bryce Alford, and three games in which they couldn't even score 20 points in the first half.

It is this resilience that Coach Alford highlighted in Friday's postgame locker room speech to a group of crying players, according to Powell.

"Coach told team that we never quit, we got tougher, we got stronger, and we came together," said Powell. "He was saying how much of a blast it was to coach these group of guys.'"

Even in Friday's final defeat, they were a blast to watch, overmatched yet unwilling to back down, Powell scoring 16 points on head-first drives into the giant twin Zags, Parker fighting inside for a game-high 11 rebounds, Bryce Alford still trying to find teammates after his shots kept disappearing into the awful background of this giant football cave. Alford finally made his first three pointer with 2:25 remaining, and only made three shots the entire night, and admitted his difficulties.

"We don't want to make excuses for having a bad shooting night," he said. "They had a really good game plan for us tonight and they made it really tough on us."

That toughness showed when the Bruins pulled to within 35-34 early in the second half. Gonzaga rumbled to eight consecutive points on three inside shots and a runner through the lane, and, against a team with three senior guards, suddenly UCLA's lack of strength and experience was exposed.

Not that they didn't keep fighting, up until the final minutes when they fired up treys and quickly fouled Gonzaga players in one final futile attempt. When it was obvious that wasn't going to work — the Bulldogs missed but six of 23 free throws — then Steve Alford showed some of the class that has become this program's cornerstone.

With 52 seconds remaining, even though Gonzaga was still playing its starters, Alford inserted graduating walk-ons Kory Alford, Nick Kazemi and David Brown into the game. Moments later, Brown drove and threw up a shot that was blocked by Kyle Dranginis, but he was thrilled with the chance.

"It was a nice little send-off, I'm very appreciative of it," said Brown, who has been with the program for four years. "We've come a long way. It's cool."

As last words go, those work. These Bruins came an awfully long way and, yeah, it was pretty cool.

Twitter: @billplaschke

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