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For UCLA coach's kid Bryce Alford, his shot finally falls into place

UCLA's Bryce Alford, forever known as the 'coach's son,' sees not-so-great shot turn into his greatest moment

It was his worst shot of the game. It was the best shot of his career.

After the Coach's Kid had turned two seasons of taunts into an afternoon of greatness, it was fate that finally cut him some slack.

This is the story of Bryce Alford and the Golden Brick.

"The craziest thing that has ever happened to me in the game of basketball," Alford said late Thursday afternoon, still breathless, still stunned, still kicking.

After sinking eight three-pointers and scoring 24 points in UCLA's NCAA tournament opener with Southern Methodist on Thursday, Alford was called upon to shoulder one more burden with 13 seconds left, loft one more three-pointer to win it or lose it.

He missed it, but won it. An airball, then a lottery ball. He threw up a shot that appeared to fall far short, except just as the ball floated down toward the outside of the rim, it was knocked away by SMU's Yanick Moreira.

Whistles blew. Players screamed. Goaltending was called. A bad call, practically. A perfect call, officially.

A fitting call, given the history of Bryce Alford, and moments later, after his phantom three-pointer became the difference in the Bruins' 60-59 win, he leaped into the arms of the only other person who could understand.

There was Bryce and brother Kory rolling around the KFC Yum! Center floor. There was their father, Steve, staring at them and fighting back tears. And yes, there were the Bruins, stealing another win at the start of another big dance, bold enough to do it on the back of the biggest target in the room.

"Being a coach's kid is something I've have to deal with all year, all the time, no matter how well I play," Bryce said later in the locker room, his calm stare still fixed. "It's tough. It's not easy. The critics are going to come at me no matter what. I could average a triple-double and still get something."

He was ripped last season when he showed up with his father from New Mexico, a mediocre freshman recruit who was only on the team for one reason. After he struggled through much of the season, he was ripped again last spring when fellow freshman guard Zach LaVine turned pro after telling friends he didn't think the UCLA coach would ever play him ahead of his son.

"He's the coach's kid, he's got all the pressure on him, all the time, that's just how it is," said older brother Kory, a non-scholarship player who rarely sees game action.

When Bryce began this season as the starter, the howls of critics continued, reaching a peak in early January when he missed 19 consecutive shots during a stretch in which he was five for 39 in three consecutive losses.

"You've got to ignore the pressure, you have to fight through it, keep playing, and that's what Bryce does best," Kory said.

Sure enough, while his shot continued to clank, his playmaking improved, his calm leadership began to dominate, the young Bruins began leaning on him and senior Norman Powell, and through their trust he found strength.

"I've always had the support of my team in here, they've always said they believe me, that they don't care what my last name is, they're always there for me," Bryce said after becoming UCLA's single-season leader in three pointers with 88.

So on Thursday against a swatting group of SMU big guys who forced UCLA to beat them from outside, Bryce beat them from outside, beat them as he's never beaten anyone before.

He scored 15 points on near-perfect shooting to push UCLA to a 10-point lead early in the second half, then repeatedly shouted at the Bruins to remain calm when SMU went on a 19-0 run.

"We're frazzled, we're a deer in the headlights, but I kept telling them, 'Believe. Believe,' " he said.

Nobody believed like Alford, whose gunning helped bring them back from a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes. A fall-away three-pointer. A pull-up three pointer. And another three-pointer. A pumping fist on his chest. A sweaty grimace and stare to the sky.

"He was unbelievable," Kevon Looney said.

"That was the backyard Bryce," Kory Alford said.

All of which set up the final shot, which Bryce knew he would take.

"When it comes down to the end, I have the confidence I can make the play," he said. "I want the ball."

Then the ball was in the air and Bryce immediately knew it was the most awful of his 13 shots in this game.

"Definitely, it was my worst one," he said, grinning. "But then this big hand came out of nowhere."'

It was the hand of Moreira, although UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton wondered whether it was actually the hand of God.

Whatever happened, a Bruins victory happened, and a stomping Bruins coach suddenly became a teary dad.

"Forget about the good games, the thing I'm most proud of is how he's handled himself in every circumstance," Steve Alford said in a quiet coach's office early Thursday evening. "Whether he's been yelled at coming off the floor or been reading and hearing about all kinds of other things, he's been a level-headed kid, a humbled kid."

Alford had watched Bryce sink nine of 11 three-point shots while pushing UCLA into the round of 32 for the second consecutive season, but he said the tape he was saving was of two sons tackling each other in the postgame chaos.

"For a dad, that's priceless," he said.

For the Bruins, it's a Saturday matchup with another victorious underdog, Alabama Birmingham, and Bryce Alford detractors take note: During UCLA's 88-76 victory over UAB earlier this year, Bryce made just one of eight shots.

Yeah, he has this madness business right where he wants it.

"To win it the way we won it is so crazy, but do it when everyone is doubting you and doubting your team?" the Coach's Kid said. "And we're not done yet. We're not done proving people wrong."

Speaking for his Bruins. Speaking for himself.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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