LOUISVILLE — Almost exactly three months ago to the day, Kentucky beat-crushed-humiliated UCLA. The Bruins scored seven — count 'em, seven — points in the first half of an 83-44 loss that caused all but the most hard-hearted to avert their eyes.
"The worst game we played this season," freshman Kevon Looney recalled. "Probably the worst game anybody played this season."
Slowly but surely UCLA climbed out of the abyss. The Bruins got an NCAA Tournament bid that critics questioned and then beat SMU 60-59 Thursday on a call that might be unprecedented: a goal-tend on a three-point shot.
Sharp-shooter Bryce Alford, who got credit for the winning three-pointer, called UCLA's transformation from UK punching bag to NCAA Tournament winner "huge."
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"We lose a game like that, and the way we lost it," he said. "We talked about that all year. We could have easily folded, and that would have been our year."
Kory Alford called his brother's 9-for-11 three-point shooting against SMU "backyard Bryce."
By contrast, the loss to Kentucky in Chicago on Dec. 20 produced "the worst feeling I've ever had in my life," Kory Alford said. "... We ran into a buzz saw with Kentucky."
Surely the impression made that night by UCLA lingered. Although the Bruins won six of their final nine games (two of the losses coming against Arizona, the other two by two-point margins), the Bruins' NCAA bid raised eyebrows.
"UCLA's an easy target," Kory Alford said.
UCLA is also an unlikely underdog. "The nation never thought we were an underdog," Bryce Alford said. "We're UCLA. We never think we're an underdog."
After the loss to Kentucky, Looney said he'd like a rematch. Such a game continues to hold appeal for at least one Bruin.
"We can't meet them till the championship game," Kory Alford said with a smile. "So I'll take another shot at them."
Playing the percentages
Both of the afternoon games here Thursday saw the worst-seeded team win. Fourteen-seed UAB beat three-seed Iowa State, then 11-seed UCLA beat six-seed SMU.
UAB players spoke of being motivated by a double-digit seed. "People doubted us," Chris Cokley said. "They thought we came to the tournament just to be in the tournament. It's a huge statement. We can compete with anybody out there."
UAB players cited ESPN number-crunchers who somehow calculated that Iowa State had an 89-percent chance of winning the game. William Lee called the 89-percent figure "probably a little bit of disrespect, if you ask me."
By the way, the website Numberfire.com gave UK a 97 percent chance of beating Hampton Thursday night.
Cauley-Stein a finalist
UK's Willie Cauley-Stein was named one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy, a national Player of the Year award given annually by the Atlanta Tipoff Club.
Cauley-Stein joined Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Notre Dame's Jerian Grant and Duke's Jahlil Okafor as the finalists for the award.
The winner will be revealed during Final Four weekend, on April 5 in Indianapolis.
Lee credited UAB's ability to identify itself as a defensive team as a factor in the victory. Although making just 34.8 percent of their shots, the Blazers limited Iowa State to 36.9 percent shooting.
"We've got to be known for something," Lee said. "We decided to be known for defense."
Coach Jerod Haase did not give his players a chance to decide to make offense the team identity.
"He didn't really give anybody a chance to say something about offense," Lee said.