This is it. The important time of the season has begun for UCLA.
The Bruins open Pac-12 Conference play next Sunday against USC, and in the final pre-conference tuneup for new Coach Steve Alford’s team Saturday night, UCLA scored the final eight points to pull out a 75-67 win over a quick and athletic Alabama team at Pauley Pavilion.
Center Tony Parker made two tiebreaking free throws with 56 seconds left after rebounding a missed three-point shot by Norman Powell, and Parker got a key rebound with 43 seconds left on a miss by Alabama guard Trevor Releford.
Releford had proved almost unguardable for the Bruins, scoring 34 points on 11-for-15 shooting, including six for nine from three-point range. He made a three-pointer and a layup after a steal to pull the Crimson Tide into a 67-67 tie with 1:34 left. Two minutes earlier the Bruins had led by six.
Almost as scary as the close game was sophomore Kyle Anderson’s sudden departure from the game in the second half. It turned out to be cramping in his calf and he returned with about five minutes left and promptly fed Parker for a layup.
Five Bruins scored in double figures, led by Parker’s 16 points. He also had five rebounds.
“He’s a winner,” Alford said of the sophomore center. “He won four state titles in high school.”
Parker said he was confident when he stood at the free-throw line at the end. “Maybe I don’t always make them in practice,” he said. “But in the game, that’s different. I winked at the guys on the bench when I made those. That was big.”
Only one Bruin had a criticism for Parker. “He only had five rebounds. That’s unacceptable,” said Anderson, who finished with 13 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Parker said he wasn’t surprised by Releford’s heroics. He said his father and Releford’s father were friends in Kansas City. “I figured he’d make those shots at the end,” Parker said. “I just expected it.”
The Bruins (11-2) built a 20-9 lead with a 14-4 run in the middle of the first half. Back-to-back three-pointers by Anderson prompted Alabama Coach Anthony Grant to angrily call a timeout.
The Crimson Tide (5-7) responded to Grant’s animated discussion by running off nine straight points. Releford had seven of those and during that stretch the Bruins seemed to forget that against teams from big-time conferences like the Southeastern, they need to play full speed all the time.
At halftime Alabama led, 34-33 — the first time UCLA trailed at the half all season.
It was midway through the second half when Anderson left the game because of the cramping.
The Bruins handled losing their star well enough, building a 62-55 lead. A Parker layup gave UCLA a 62-53 lead, but that was answered by a Levi Randolph jumper. Alabama called time out with 5:54 left after that score.
To the great relief of UCLA fans, Anderson returned with 5:09 left and the Bruins leading, 62-57. An Anderson assist to Parker gave the Bruins a 66-60 lead with 3:09 left.