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January 10, 2014

UCLA making strides in Westwood

As the Bruins jogged into the locker room after their game against No. 1 Arizona on Thursday night, fans rose to their feet and applauded.

Yet, it wasn't a victorious applause.

UCLA had just missed out on an opportunity to upset the Wildcats, falling 79-75 in a game that ranks high on the list of all-time UCLA-Arizona conference showdowns.

The loss comes on the heels of the Bruins' two losses to Top 25-ranked Duke and Missouri.

"I thought we made strides," head coach Steve Alford said when asked to compare this loss to UCLA's two prior losses. "We were down 13 with six minutes to go here, and I liked our fight. Those are strides. You'd like for those strides to be in wins, obviously, but I've seen strides in a lot of different areas with this basketball team."

The No. 1 team in the nation eventually proved too strong defensively for UCLA, but the sellout crowd of 13,283 - albeit sprinkled with Wildcats fans decked out in red - gave the Bruins all they had.

Students camped out overnight to sit in the student section and were unfurled on Bruin Walk hours before the game.

"This is the best atmosphere we've been in to date. I really appreciate the fans," Alford said. "Our students camped out last night and our players took pizzas to them. It means a lot to us, 'cause I thought the students were terrific. … There was volume; there was intensity."

While often criticized for their fickleness, Bruins fans not only showed up in droves to Thursday night's matchup, but kept the building booming throughout the tightly-contested game.

With UCLA down 68-55 with 6:16 to play, guards Kyle Anderson and Bryce Alford started a 10-0 run to bring the Bruins within three with 2:47 on the clock.

Then, Bruins fans let out a bellowing roar in Pauley Pavilion as Jordan Adams knocked down a crucial three-pointer to tie the game at 68 with 2:23 remaining.

It was the loudest Pauley Pavilion's been in quite some time, certainly since undergoing its recent renovation.

"I think [the crowd] played a very big factor," Anderson said. "The home court is such a big momentum booster. When you hear that crowd behind you, you give that extra effort."

And reciprocally, when the fans witness that effort, applause is sure to follow. Even when the scoreboard doesn't tilt in their team's favor at the final buzzer.

"We want to win 'em all. We're not to that point yet," Alford said. "Hopefully, we can get to that point, but I think the fans know that this is an entertaining team because they play hard and they play smart."

Fifteen games into his inaugural season in Westwood, Alford appears to have laid the foundation for a basketball program that will engage UCLA fans after they became disenchanted by the latter years of the Ben Howland era.

The round of applause following the Bruins' loss on Thursday suggests that Alford's energetic, resilient Bruins and his entertaining run-and-gun system are already boding well with fans.

That support, in turn, has the potential to buoy UCLA as it continues to make strides to develop into the national powerhouse it has historically been.

"It's a fun team to watch and follow and hopefully the fans will continue to see that," Alford said. "It meant a lot to us tonight. We wouldn't have got back in it had we not gotten all that energy from the stands. So, that was very good."

That energy prevailed even beyond the final buzzer.

And it might be just what these Bruins need to get back in it once again.


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