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December 29, 2013

Parker lifts Bruins over the Tide

UCLA finished off non-conference play on Saturday night with a thrilling win over Alabama that may not have unfolded how they anticipated, but nonetheless, gave the Bruins momentum heading into Pac-12 play.

The 5-6 Crimson Tide entered the game coming off a pair of close losses to No. 11 Wichita State (72-67) and Xavier (77-74); and had previously lost by 10 to college basketball powerhouse Duke (74-64), which defeated UCLA handily (80-63) in Madison Square Garden earlier this month.

After an offensive foul by David Wear on UCLA's first possession, the Bruins took control of the game early in the first half, overwhelming the Crimson Tide with their fast-paced offense.

Following a back-and-forth swing, UCLA embarked on a 14-4 run, propelled by a pair of threes from Jordan Adams, which put the Bruins up 20-9 with 11:48 to play in the first half.

With an opportunity to open up the game, UCLA instead allowed Alabama back in the game with a stretch of sloppy play in which the Bruins committed a series of turnovers and fouls.

The Crimson Tide capitalized on the Bruins follies, tallying their own 9-0 run to bring them within two points at 20-18.

Alabama then stifled UCLA's offense with a full-court press, which held the Bruins scoreless for more than five minutes in the second half and gave them trouble for the majority of the game.

"I thought we battled," Alabama head coach Anthony Grant said. "…UCLA is an awfully good team, especially when they can play in rhythm. I thought the (full-court) pressure broke the rhythm a little and allowed us to get some transition buckets and get back in the game."

With UCLA's offense stalled, Alabama captured the lead with a handful of threes from upperclassman guards Trevor Releford and Levi Randolph. Releford , Alabama's top scorer, put in a season-high 34 points in the game, which included six three-pointers.

"He's just very, very talented," head coach Steve Alford said of Releford. "He … knows how to play the game. I just think he's a terrific player."

The Bruins entered halftime trailing for the first time this season, with Alabama up 34-33.

"(I told the team) that we needed this," Alford said of his halftime speech. "We're getting ready to get into conference season, and so, we needed this."

Momentum swayed early in the second half, as both teams put together runs to nab the lead.

With 10:12 remaining, freshman guard Zach LaVine, who was averaging 12.8 points per game heading into Saturday, scored his first points of the game. Both he and fellow freshman Bryce Alford, who accounted for 23 percent of the team's points through UCLA's first 12 games, were scoreless in the first half.

Alford revealed following the game that the two were feeling under the weather. LaVine finished with five points and Alford remained scoreless through the contest, going 0-for-4 from the field.

With the usual bench contributors stymied by illness, the Bruins received a near-heroic effort from struggling sophomore center Tony Parker, who finished the game with a team-high 16 points.

Carrying a five-point lead with less than two minutes remaining, UCLA committed a pair of costly turnovers, which were capitalized on by Releford, who tied the game at 67 with 1:34 to play.

The Bruins' fate was in the balance when Parker, a 44-percent free-throw shooter on the season, was sent to the charity stripe with the score tied at 67 and 0:56 on the clock. Parker drained both free throws and gave a wink to his teammates on the bench, who tease him about his poor free-throw shooting.

Parker then came up big for the Bruins on the opposite end when he collected a clutch rebound as he was falling out of bounds. After Travis Wear knocked down another pair of free throws to put UCLA up four with 39 seconds remaining, Parker delivered once again with an emphatic rejection on a shot from Releford.

"It came down to just making plays and doing what I can for my teammates," Parker said of his stellar performance.

His play didn't fall unnoticed by fans in attendance at Saturday night's game. During a dead-ball, Pauley Pavilion bellowed Parker's name.

"It was cool," the 6-foot-9 Georgia native said. "I was really just trying to focus on getting two more stops, so we could go home with a win, but it was great to get love from the Bruin fans. I respect them a lot."

"He's a winner," Alford said of Parker. "He does whatever it takes to win, and I thought he did a lot of good things in the second half."

"With production inside, we're a very hard team to beat," added sophomore guard Kyle Anderson, who put up 13 points with seven assists and six rebounds despite suffering cramps in his calves.

Norman Powell and Adams made all of their free throws in the final 30 seconds and UCLA pulled out the victory, 75-67.

"I'm really pleased with the team effort; this was a really good team win," Alford said. "I thought we grew and matured a lot in this game. We showed a lot of toughness in the last five minutes."

With non-conference play wrapped up, UCLA now prepares to face crosstown rival USC in its first Pac-12 conference game next Sunday at Pauley Pavilion.


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