At halftime of UCLA’s matinee at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday, some guy walked to the middle of the court and began shoving long knives through a box containing a bedazzled woman.
The guy was an illusionist. The woman emerged untouched. It was all a mere parlor trick compared to what happened next.
UCLA stepped back on the floor, dominated a decent Stanford team for an 88-77 win in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament, and essentially clinched a spot in next week’s NCAA tournament.
Slice. Poof! The Bruins are still standing.
Steve Alford has led them from a November nightmare in China back to the wonderful madness of March.
A team that lost three players to suspension for shoplifting days before the first game of the season has found itself. A group that was once the butt of a LaVar Ball joke is now smiling from here to Lithuania.
Their 21st win should give them their fourth NCAA tournament appearance in Alford’s five seasons. What will probably be a low seed could improve with a victory over 15th-ranked Arizona Friday in the semifinals, and the Bruins will gain even more momentum if they’re able to win the unlikeliest of tournament championships.
But, for now, being upright and walking into the dance is reward enough.
“We’ve been through a lot,” said Alford, shaking his head as he sat on a folding chair in a cramped coach’s room late Thursday afternoon. “Things come out of left field that you don’t know about…. for these guys to fight and do what they’ve done, it’s great to see them growing and maturing.”
As they left the floor riding the broad shoulders of Aaron Holiday and calm heartbeat of Thomas Welsh on Thursday, it was hard to believe this was the same team that was enveloped in chaos in early November when freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were arrested for shoplifting during the team’s season-opening trip to China.
The university eventually did the right thing by suspending the players for the entire season. LaVar Ball then pulled LiAngelo out of school and took his family circus to some minor league team in Lithuania.
But all of it shook the Bruins to their core, taking away their depth and smothering them in distraction.
“We were 11 deep and we went from 11 to eight overnight,” said Alford. “Not only 11 to eight overnight, but you’re doing it in China, so you’re doing it a long way from home where you’re trying to revamp and do things.”
Although there many low points, it seemed the lowest was on a Saturday afternoon in December when the Bruins were waxed by Cincinnati by 14 points just a week after blowing a 15-point lead in a loss at Michigan.
In talking with Alford after that game, I’ve never seen him more frustrated. Fans wanted him fired, almost as if he had been the shoplifter. His players seemed lost and confused. Yet his message to them remained consistent.
“I always tell them, we have a culture here,” he said. “It’s about the next guy up. It’s about listen to noise within, not the noise on the outside, because it can chew you up. It’s about trusting your teammates.”
Nobody is trusted more than veterans Holiday and Welsh, and it was only fitting that those two led Thursday’s bid clinching by combining for 52 of UCLA’s 88 points and half of their 36 rebounds.
Holiday was simply unreal, deftly driving, majestically popping, setting up his teammates for open looks while putting on a show for the sideline-sitting Magic Johnson. He scored 34 points with eight assists, seven rebounds, and another big move up the NBA draft list.
Note to those Cinderella lovers looking for a leader who is playing his best basketball in March: Holiday is averaging 28 points, seven assists and five rebounds in the Bruins’ last five games.
“He finds you, he scores when he needs to score, he steals, he’s great, I can’t believe it,” said teammate Gyorgy Goloman. “He’s taking over. He’s carrying us.”
Then there is Welsh, the giant with a touch that rained down four three-pointers, helping him to a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. Beginning with his 10 points and eight rebounds in that China opener against Georgia Tech, Welsh knew his role.
“That is something that you never really see, an event like that where you lose three players off the team before the first game even starts,” Welsh said. “Being a senior, you have that situation happening, I’ll do my best to step and be a leader.”
These Bruins are following those steps, playing hard from start to finish Thursday, making the extra pass, the extra lunge, the extra effort, 14 assists and nine steals and 17 points off the bench. Including Saturday’s victory at USC, they now have consecutive wins by 11 points in must-win situations, strong preparation for the road ahead.
“If the young guys had seen a different Tom and Aaron in the Georgia Tech game it could have gone south in a hurry,” Alford said. “I think they saw their two leaders fighting for every possession, and that helped.”
One occurrence Thursday perhaps epitomized the season, even though it lasted only three minutes. If you don’t believe Alford has been playing short-handed, then check out the substitution he made with 9:27 left in the first quarter of a tense moment.
He brought in former walk-on Alec Wulff, a hard-working senior who has played in all of eight games this year with an average of 2.6 minutes a game.
Said Alford: “He’s tough, we trust him.’’
Said Wulff: “Coach tell me to stay ready, so I was.’’
Sure enough, Wulff had a steal that set up a Holiday three-pointer and wound up with a plus-two rating for his three minutes. The Bruins are lucky to have a player such as Wulff, and their bench is filled with guys like him.
“They’ve got some moxie to them, they really do,” said Alford. “The young guys are growing. All the other guys are just getting better. We’re a confident group right now.”
That confidence was evident Thursday when Holiday clinched the victory with a splashing three-pointer with 2:18 remaining. He screamed. His shook his fist. He swaggered back down the court, huge smile, all sweat, no illusion.