Steve Alford preaches patience after UCLA loss to Oklahoma

UCLA loses its first game of the season when Oklahoma wipes out an eight-point deficit in the second half

Getting back on defense, Kevon Looney shook his head and grimaced. Down by five points with 4 minutes 29 seconds left in the game, Looney had missed a pair of free throws.

Once within reach, UCLA's chance at a win was slipping away in a flurry of missed free throws. Oklahoma defeated UCLA in the opening round of the Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament, 75-65, the 22nd-ranked Bruins' first loss after four victories.

Afterward, UCLA Coach Steve Alford chose to laugh. The Bruins had juggled three players in foul trouble and faced a hot Oklahoma shooter, but had UCLA shot better than nine of 21 from the free-throw line, the outcome might have been different.

If free-throw shooting was what sank his team against the Sooners, Alford seemed OK with it.

He turned to Looney and tapped him on the chest.

"He's putting up huge numbers through five games of his career," Alford said. "You know what? Miss a few free throws. He's going to miss a few free throws? OK, miss a few free throws. That'll come."

The score was tied with six minutes left, but seven unanswered points by Oklahoma (3-1) left UCLA reeling. A missed rebound and a turnover after Bryce Alford slipped on a drive sealed the game.

Still feeling magnanimous, the coach next turned to Bryce Alford, his son, who led the team in minutes (37) and points (19) while drawing one of Oklahoma's best defenders.

"You know what?" Steve Alford said. "Fall down. Thirty-seven minutes and doing the things we're asking you to do? Fall down occasionally."

Then he returned to his message.

He said the coaching staff must be patient. The Bruins shot only 37.7%, but that, he predicted, would get corrected.

Aside from that, the Bruins were sunk by predictable issues: youth and depth. Freshman Looney was exposed, then he adapted. He made one of nine shots in the first half but went five for six in the second.

UCLA's depth was tested by foul trouble. Tony Parker picked up four fouls early in the second half. Looney followed. Then Norman Powell. The other starters, Alford and Isaac Hamilton, played 35 minutes or more.

The team endured one its worst stretches in the game's final minutes.

The Sooners "picked up their intensity the last few minutes of the game," Bryce Alford said. "And we struggled with that."

These are issues that Steve Alford hopes time will resolve. Already, Looney is averaging 15 points and 12.6 rebounds, and Bryce Alford is commanding attention on offense.

"I had no idea a month ago that we could be at the level we're at right now," Steve Alford said.

After a plodding first half, UCLA went up by eight points midway through the second after Looney came alive and Hamilton hit consecutive shots. Other coaches here have noted UCLA's explosive offensive potential.

But after UCLA extended its lead, its defense lapsed. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma's offensive leader and a native of the Bahamas, scored 11 points in a row for the Sooners during an 11-2 run that put his team ahead. Hield finished with 24 points.

"We're not going to be the team we want to be on Thanksgiving," Steve Alford said.

The next game, against North Carolina, ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press media poll and an upset victim by Butler in another first-round game, could provide an even stiffer test Thursday.

"We talked about it in the locker room," Alford said. "It is a process. Carolina didn't think they were going to be in that [losers'] bracket. We didn't think we were going to be in that bracket."

Of note

UCLA and Kentucky are working to schedule a home-and-home series beginning with a game at Pauley Pavilion next season, Steve Alford said. Already next season UCLA plays at Gonzaga, has a neutral-site game against North Carolina and will participate in the highly competitive Maui Invitational. UCLA and Kentucky play this season on Dec. 20 in the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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