SAN DIEGO — This was a big hurdle for UCLA.
Sure, a bigger one looms on the horizon. But the Bruins were basking in the moment . . . sort of.
UCLA’s 77-60 victory over Stephen F. Austin at Viejas Arena was predictable. The Lumberjacks may have won 29 consecutive games, but they had an expiration date. It was Sunday.
The feel-good story was gone. This was the Bruins’ moment. Their next one is in the South Regional semifinals in Memphis, Tenn., against top-ranked Florida.
The Bruins made it past the tournament’s first weekend for the first time since 2008. Emotions transitioned in the locker room just about as fast UCLA did on the court.
Players were ecstatic and businesslike.
“We’re putting UCLA back on the map,” forward David Wear said.
Then again . . .
“There is no celebrating,” Jordan Adams said. “We haven’t done anything yet.”
Or . . .
“This means a lot to everyone in here,” guard Norman Powell said.
Yet . . .
“They don’t hang Sweet 16 banners in Pauley Pavilion,” guard Kyle Anderson said.
The postgame whirlwind mirrored the one the Bruins performed on the court. UCLA (28-8) was hardly at its best. It didn’t have to be.
The Lumberjacks (32-3) had pulled off a stunning comeback against Virginia Commonwealth on Friday. But they were clearly out of their league Sunday.
Adams scored 19 points, Powell 16 and Anderson 15. The Bruins shot 54.7% from the field and turned the ball over only three times.
If UCLA fans had any lingering worries at halftime, with the Bruins leading 42-32, Powell eased their minds at the start of the second half.
“Coach told me to start dunking the ball,” Powell said.
No need for Steve Alford to tell him twice.
Powell started with a one-hander, going from flat-footed to above the rim. His next trick was to burst upcourt, stutter-step, dribble behind the back and lay in a scoop shot. The finale was to swoop in for a two-handed dunk.
At that moment, they could have printed the Bruins’ boarding passes for the flight to Memphis. Oh, the Lumberjacks still had a little spunk left, but their clock was ticking.
UCLA stretched its lead to 58-41 with 12 minutes left.
“We felt we were the better team,” Adams said. “But you don’t want to take another team for granted. Coach said at halftime that you can’t let a team who has won 29 straight hang around. He wanted us to put our foot on their throat.”
Of course, Adams said, “This was expected.”
In theory, sure. In practice, it’s a little more difficult. Adams can just ask his coach.
This is the first time Alford has taken a team to the regional semifinals since Missouri State’s unexpected run in 1999. Asked if there was any personal gratification, he said “no.”
As for the Bruins’ advancing, Alford said, “It’s great steps in the right direction.”
The next step is a doozy for the Bruins. Second-seeded Syracuse and third-seeded Kansas were bounced from the South Regional this weekend, but that doesn’t help UCLA’s immediate situation.
“We’ve got a great team waiting for us,” Wear said.
UCLA has had nothing but bad experiences playing Florida. The Gators beat the Bruins in the 2006 NCAA title game and again in the 2007 Final Four. The teams met again in the second round in 2011, another Florida victory.
Ah, but maybe the fourth time is a charm.
“I don’t think we have had too much attention across the nation as far getting respect from a lot of people,” Wear said. “We’ve started to get momentum. People started looking at what we did in the Pac-12 tournament. We’re rolling.”
Too fast to stop and bask in the moment.
“It’s great to get to the Sweet 16,” Powell said. “Traditionally [at UCLA], it’s not about getting to the Sweet 16. It’s about completing the journey and winning the national championship. The journey is not done.”