SAN DIEGO -- In the final minutes of UCLA’s 77-60 win over Stephen F. Austin in the third round of the NCAA tournament, a woman in Viejas Arena began to chant Aubrey Williams’ name. Then, other Bruins fans joined her.
Steve Alford inserted Williams and four other reserves into the game with 44.1 seconds to go Sunday.
As Tony Parker walked off the floor and approached his seat, the 6-foot-9, 255-pound big man grabbed UCLA director of operations Tyus Edney, who became a Bruins legend after his miracle shot against Missouri in the 1995 NCAA tournament, lifted him off the ground and held him as though he were a child.
“You know, Tyus Edney is a lightweight, so it was kind of easy,” Parker joked. “Just little Tyus. I’m from Missouri, so I always mess with him. My whole family is from Missouri, so he hit the lucky layup. My grandpop makes sure I mess with Tyus every day. That layup was the lottery for Tyus. I love him, he’s a great guy.”
For the first time in six years, the Bruins had a reason to smile at this stage of the NCAA tournament, an accomplishment that arrived in Alford’s first season. They’ll face Florida, the tourney’s No. 1 overall seed, on Thursday in Memphis during their first trip to the Sweet 16 since 2008.
“It’s a great feeling,” Kyle Anderson said. “This is what guys come to UCLA for. A storied program, you know, this is what you want here. This is what I know Jordan [Adams] and myself came to UCLA for.”
And all seemed well in Westwood.
But UCLA’s most recent years lacked the same pizzazz and failed to meet the mark that an incomparable history established decades ago. The Bruins are John Wooden, Pauley Pavilion, Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor and 11 national championships.
They’re not three NCAA tourney appearances in the previous five seasons and zero trips to the Sweet 16. But they were that in the lukewarm years that followed the remarkable Final Four streak under Ben Howland, who was fired following last season’s loss to Minnesota in the Big Dance.
It wasn’t just the losing and relative postseason futility that contributed to Howland’s exit. It was also the stream of Cali prospects who left the state -- see Aaron Gordon and Brandon Ashley. Both signed with Arizona prior to Alford’s arrival.
Alford wasn’t charged with rebuilding when he was hired last year. He was asked to reignite a program that had every resource necessary to regain its edge. This year’s Sweet 16 run and Pac-12 tourney championship prove that the former New Mexico coach has already lit the match on that vision.
“Obviously, it’s great steps in the right direction,” said Alford, who will participate in his first Sweet 16 as a head coach since 1999.
It didn’t take much time for UCLA’s advantages against Stephen F. Austin to be revealed and exploited. Brad Underwood tried to use 5-foot-9 point guard Trey Pinkney against Anderson, a 6-foot-9 combo guard. He eventually put 6-foot-6 forward Thomas Walkup on him. Neither option worked.
Even though Stephen F. Austin had entered the game on a 29-game winning streak that it extended with a win over VCU, it’s no comparison to the Florida squad that UCLA will see next.
Those Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2. They’re big at every position, too. And they don’t crumble in the final moments.
They’ve had the upper hand on UCLA in recent years, too. Billy Donovan’s program has kicked the Bruins out of the NCAA tournament three times since 2006, when Florida beat UCLA in the national title game.
“That’s some good history,” Parker said. “But we got 11 national championships. So that’s good history, too. We just continue to play. And have fun.”
After the game, Alford had no interest in discussing the Sweet 16 as the pinnacle for a program that’s accustomed to much more. He admits that it’s a significant stride. But -- since this is UCLA -- it’s still not enough. Only a start.
“I’ve known Coach Wooden a long time, since elementary school, and we’re going to wrap around this as a school and we’re going to tackle it and do everything we can to build champions,” Alford said. “We shouldn’t be here if that’s not what we want to do.”