The warning signs were out there for UCLA.
High-seeded teams were being sent home from the NCAA tournament left and right. It got the fourth-seeded Bruins’ attention.
They cleared one potential pratfall Friday night with a 76-59 victory over Tulsa in Viejas Arena, scratching Item No. 1 off their tournament to-do list.
“We all watched the games, and we saw Duke and a couple high seeds lose,” said forward Travis Wear, who was five for five from the field and scored 10 points. “We knew we didn’t want to be one of them.”
So Wear knew that “as long as we focused and took care of what we had to take care of, we would be OK.”
The Bruins (27-8) took care of enough things to hang around the tournament. Jordan Adams had 21 points and Norman Powell scored 15, and both had spotlight moments that finally buried the 13th-seeded Golden Hurricane (21-13).
Tulsa pulled to within 59-54 with less than five minutes to play. It only served to get the Bruins’ attention. Powell had a three-point play on a steal, layup and free throw. Adams dropped in a three-point jumper. UCLA closed the game with a 17-5 run.
So it was on to the next step.
The Bruins will play another upstart, 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin, on Sunday, with the winner going to Memphis for the South Regional semifinals. The Lumberjacks pulled out a stunning, 77-75 victory over Virginia Commonwealth, after a four-point play by Desmond Haywood forced overtime.
“The first [tournament] game is the toughest test for sure,” UCLA guard Kyle Anderson said. “We got that out of the way with a 17-point win. We got to sustain that energy we had today.”
Another victory would be a watershed moment for the Bruins, who have not advanced beyond the tournament’s first weekend since reaching the Final Four in 2008.
Wear will remain wary.
“It’s the NCAA tournament, you got to stay sharp,” he said. “That’s where our heads are at right now. You just look at all the upsets and look how hard Tulsa played today. We realize it’s going to be a battle every single game.”
The Bruins got more of a skirmish Friday.
This game was played at a playground pace. You almost expected to see five other guys on the side calling “next.”
The game also went through that new-car-break-in period, that first 20 minutes where an underdog determines whether it can play at this level or decides to call it a season. The Golden Hurricane players showed no signs of wanting to take their NCAA parting gifts and fly home.
The Bruins had that better-team look, but led only 35-30 at the half.
UCLA pushed to a 28-19 lead five minutes before halftime. The Golden Hurricane appeared to have reservations on the NCAA’s midnight charter flight.
James Woodard wasn’t ready to check his bags. He finished off an 11-2 run with a three-pointer and a dunk on which he blew past three Bruins. UCLA found itself tied, 30-30.
The Bruins shot only 38% in the half.
“Their defensive pressure was very good when they came out, and I think we were a little too anxious,” Anderson said. “Coach [Steve Alford] stressed that we needed to get better shots, cut better and find each other.”
The Bruins found Adams and Powell during a 10-0 run to start the second half. Adams had the first six, with a three-pointer followed by a three-point play on a rebound and layup. Powell had the next four, including a flying dunk, for a 45-32 lead.
Those two did much of the work down the stretch, combining for 11 of the Bruins’ last 15 points.
Now comes Stephen F. Austin.
“It’s going to be fun,” guard Bryce Alford said. “We could hear their crowd [in the locker room] and we had no idea what was going on. It’s going to be a fun atmosphere, but we’ll be ready.”