UCLA in the ‘Zona

It was a blizzard in the desert, UCLA’s white jerseys swirling around Stanford in torrents.

The Bruins hit rainbows from the corner, tips from the paint, pump fake bank shots down the middle, and full-court fastbreak layups that ran right through the Vegas ushers in tuxedos.

Kyle Anderson hit a three. Norman Powell lofted in a right-handed runner. Jordan Adams fought inside for a layup. Travis Wear ran the floor for a layup. Bryce Alford hit a three. Anderson again. Powell again. And again.

On and on it went Friday night in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals, the Bruins piling it on so thick that Stanford couldn’t shovel them, couldn’t plow them, and certainly couldn’t stop them.


The storm raged at the MGM Grand Garden Arena for all of two hours, and by the time it ended, the Bruins had dominated a second consecutive tournament game with an 84-59 victory.

“This is a lot of fun,” said Adams after his team ran to a 19-point lead in the first eight minutes and never slowed. “You don’t get leads like that very often. We’re enjoying it while we can.”

It was such a blowout, about the only time any Bruin seemed to show any distress was with 5:40 left in the first half, when Coach Steve Alford loudly stomped on the hardwood floor in anger over a foul committed by, um, er, son Bryce.

Every other bit of Bruins dancing here has been done with joy, as the team that ended its regular season with an awful loss in Pullman has lighted up the Strip here with double-digit wins against Oregon and Stanford. Once jaws have been picked up, of course, a question must be asked: Where on Earth have these guys been all season?


“UCLA is all about March,” said Alford with a smile.

The lately suffering Bruins fans, who undoubtedly feel as unburdened by this March merriment as Alford’s players, aren’t going to have much time to ponder an answer. UCLA now follows its two biggest wins of the year with its biggest game of the year, a Saturday afternoon tournament championship date with nationally fourth-ranked Arizona.

Check that. They will be playing Destroyers-of-Two-Poor-Souls-Here-by-a-Combined-52-Points Arizona.

“We want to beat them bad,” said Adams.

The Wildcats will surely be a top seed in next week’s NCAA tournament, and, from the looks of things this weekend, they could easily be picked to win it all. They have the great guard leadership in Nick Johnson, the superstar forward in Aaron Gordon, and an inside force in Kaleb Tarczewski.

The Wildcats are strong where the Bruins can be soft -- inside -- and savvy where the younger Bruins can sometimes lose focus. The two teams have only faced off once this year, at Pauley Pavilion on Jan. 29, and while Arizona ran off to a double-digit lead, UCLA fought back late to tie the score before ultimately falling, 79-75.

“UCLA should want a piece of Arizona,” said Pac-12 Networks analyst Kevin O’Neill, a former USC coach. “They may not want it when they get there, but they do want it.”

These programs are close. In fact, beginning with UCLA’s last national title in 1995 -- that’s 19 years ago, if anyone’s counting -- the Arizona program has pulled even with UCLA in basketball success.


During those 19 years, both teams have won one national title, both have played in the championship game twice, and Arizona has made the Elite Eight six times while UCLA has made it five times.

The two teams have met just once in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, but that was nearly 25 years ago, in 1990, when Arizona won by 16 points.

The loudest difference in the programs is the fan base. Arizona fans are among the most fervent and well-traveled in college basketball, rivaling groups such as those that follow Kentucky. This week they have transformed a corner of the MGM Grand into a sort of Tucson with slot machines, chanting and cheering and clogging the corridors with red shirts and faces.

Challenged by a small but stealthy number of Bruins fans, the Arizona faithful will turn the arena here into a Wildcat home game Saturday. In fact, the first half of UCLA’s Friday game wasn’t even finished when Arizona fans filled the room with a “U of A” chant.

UCLA fans later responded with a “We want ‘Zona,” chant. It lasted about 10 seconds before dying out.

Here’s guessing the Bruins will last a bit longer against Arizona on the court Saturday. How much longer is anyone’s guess. We may not know where these guys have been all season, but we’re about to find out exactly where they are now.



Twitter: @billplaschke