UCLA players take advice, enjoy themselves to start Pac-12 tournament

LAS VEGAS -- There’s been a certain strain on the young faces of recent UCLA basketball teams during this time of year, a visible look of weariness and distraction, the open scars of a long season under a heavy hand.

Call it Ben Howland’s Sighs of March.


All of which made it so startling to see the Bruins storming through Las Vegas early Thursday night hitting every 16, letting everything ride, going all in on every hand with swaggers and smiles.

Welcome to Steve Alford’s Wilds of March?

Call it a pretty good basketball night for a football school, the Bruins blowing through their league’s hottest team with an 82-63 victory over Oregon in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.

“So fun,” said Jordan Adams.

The night started fortuitously for the Bruins with a national anthem banged out on drums by the Blue Man Group. It ended with Bruin fans rolling out the loudest “U-C-L-A” chant heard outside a football field in several years.

In between, against a Ducks team that had won eight consecutive games, including a victory over fourth-ranked Arizona, there were Bruins players flying and flinging and posing and even one of them, Kyle Anderson, slamming down a poster-worthy dunk over Oregon’s helpless Richard Amardi.

Because the game was on the ghost-like Pac-12 network, few back in Los Angeles saw the seminal play, but if UCLA stays alive deep into the month, guaranteed, you’ll be seeing it in your sleep.

“I can’t wait to see it,” Anderson said afterward. “That’s big time for me. I dream about that.”

The dunk came after a soar through the lane with 50 seconds remaining in the first half and the score tied at 35. Anderson virtually climbed over the 6-foot-8 Amardi’s head to slam the ball through the basket as Amardi crumbled beneath him. Beginning with that moment, and carrying into the first part of the second half, the Bruins went on a 20-4 run that ended it early.

“I used to dunk like that in the backyard all the time on my German shepherd, he was about Amardi’s size,” said Anderson.

The dog’s name? What else? Magic.

It was that kind of fun night, the sort that had been missing in recent March journeys under Howland. In their final five years under the wise yet demanding coach, UCLA went 7-8 in Pac-12 and NCAA tournament appearances, with only two of those wins coming by double digits. In fact, UCLA’s margin of victory Thursday was its biggest in the postseason in six years.

These Bruins entered Thursday desperately in need of a postseason unburdening, and Alford gave it to them.

“Before the game, Coach called us together to remind us that this is the best of the time of year, the last time we will be together, and we need to enjoy it,” said David Wear.

After the Bruins’ dispiriting season-ending loss at Washington State on Saturday, Alford indeed gathered the Bruins together in their Pauley Pavilion locker room to show film, but it wasn’t game film.

“I told them, every year you destroy one game film, and we are going to destroy the one from Washington State,” he said. “Then I put in a film of all their fun times.”

The players confirmed this, sounding amazed that they were playing for a coach who was actually using the eve of the most pressurized time of the season to remind them to dance.

“The films showed us dunking, having fun, getting our swag back,” said Adams. “The coach told us we just had to have fun and see where that would take us.”

Alford also played music at practice for the first time this season, loosening the reins instead of tightening them. He said he realized that he had run 100 practices for the first time in his coaching career, and he thought they needed to relax and remember.

“We wanted to loosen things up, I wanted them to enjoy this journey,” Alford said. “It’s not worth it if you can’t enjoy it.”

So they did, making more than half of their 53 shots while unveiling all sorts of celebration moves. Norman Powell stuck his hands in imaginary holsters after one basket. Tony Parker shook his head as if they couldn’t stop him after another basket. Adams shook his head after a set of baskets that were run on identical plays.

“They just punched us in our mouths and we never responded,” said Oregon’s Johnathan Lloyd.

As the Bruins headed toward a Friday night semifinal game with Stanford, who knows what happens next? Maybe the Bruins were just fortunate to play an Oregon team that is their mirror image, only not as talented.

Or maybe they’re just better when nobody is watching: they were 16-0 when the games are shown on that obscure Pac-12 Network, which will thankfully not air the Bruins any more this season.

Whatever happens, the rest of the Bruins’ March could be the sort of lively adventure that has been missing around here for a while, a expedition that has so far even made the intense Anderson openly smile in the middle of the court.

“I see us comfortable, I see us giving it our all, there’s nothing more than can make me happy,” he said, and here’s guessing he’s not alone.

Twitter: @billplaschke