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March 22, 2014

UCLA looking to advance in NCAA Tournament

SAN DIEGO -- For the first time in three years, UCLA has won a game in the NCAA Tournament, and while the Bruins are content to proceed to the next round of the NCAA Tournament, they're well aware that the expectations for their storied basketball program extend well beyond the Round of 32.

After all, no other program has 11 NCAA championship banners hanging in the rafters above its home court.

"You can't be good one out of every four years," head coach Steve Alford said. "You gotta be relevant every year. That's the culture we know is established and that's the culture we want to continue at UCLA."

The next obstacle standing between UCLA's road to relevance will be No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin, which won in dramatic fashion as it upset 5 seed VCU in overtime.

Alford watched the thriller as he and his Bruins waited to take the floor in Viejas Arena after the conclusion of the game. He was thoroughly impressed by Desmond Haymon's sensational four-point play with three seconds remaining that sent the game into overtime.

"It's one thing to shoot that shot, get hit, get fouled, make the shot, then go to the free-throw line knowing you have to make the free-throw," the first-year Bruins coach said. "Those aren't easy plays and I think that's what's impressive about this team we're about to play."

Alford and the millions of viewers who watched the game may have been impressed by the shot and subsequent SFA win, but the Lumberjacks aren't dwelling on their success.

"That shot in that game won't mean anything after that if we don't come to play," Haymon said. "It meant a lot for the shot to go down, but we are focusing on something else right now."

"You get to enjoy an unbelievable win and one that had about as much drama and excitement as you could possibly have," SFA head coach Brad Underwood added. "Reality slaps you in the face when you see UCLA, and that moment gets put to rest pretty quickly."

As a No. 4 seed facing a No. 12 seed, UCLA is favored to win the game, but the Bruins don't feel like a favorite.

Having witnessed the increasing uniformity of college basketball teams, particularly with a team like No. 3 seed Duke-which defeated UCLA earlier this season-falling to a 14 seed, UCLA knows it has to play its best basketball every game, regardless of which team it's facing.

"It doesn't change our mindset," junior guard Norman Powell said of the seed discrepancy. "The team we're playing, even though they're a 12 seed, they knocked off the fifth seed. It just shows how much anybody can win, especially in a tournament like this. There have been upsets all around."

Winning has become nearly involuntary for Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks have not only won every game they've played in 2014, but haven't lost a game since Nov. 23. That makes 29 consecutive wins for them after beating VCU on Friday.

"You've got a culture in that locker room that hasn't experienced any kind of loss since late November," said Alford, whose 49th birthday coincidentally marks the last day SFA lost a game. "So, that's a very difficult team to prepare for regardless of what you're going to do offensively and defensively. I think this is a really tough group."

Although their styles of play differ, SFA and UCLA have discovered similar ways to win this season. They both share and take care of the ball, and both teams scrap on the defensive end to force turnovers.

UCLA's assist-turnover ratio is 1.64 (5th, nationally); SFA's is 1.46 (15th). The Bruins average 17.2 assists per game (5th); the Lumberjacks: 16.6 (8th). UCLA's average turnover margin is 4.0 (11th); SFA's is 4.9 (6th).

"We gotta play under control 'cause that's going to be big-time: who makes less turnovers and who makes less mistakes," sophomore center Tony Parker said.

While SFA plays solid fundamental team basketball, it is significantly overmatched in the size department.

The Lumberjacks' tallest starter, junior forward Jacob Parker, is listed at 6-foot-6, which matches the height of UCLA's second-shortest starter, Jordan Adams. In addition to twin towers David and Travis Wear, who measure 6-foot-10, the Bruins starting point guard, Kyle Anderson, is 6-foot-9.

SFA's height disparity presents UCLA with an opportunity to dominate the boards, as the Lumberjacks are ranked 329th out of 345 teams in defensive rebounds per game (20.9). The Bruins average 25.5 defensive rebounds per game (62nd).

While the Bruins will certainly aim to exploit their height advantage, they aren't counting on it to be a defining factor in only the second all-time meeting between the two programs.

"They play with a lot of heart," Anderson said. "How hard they play really makes up for their size. We just have to match their intensity."

In the NCAA Tournament, the amount of heart a team has can carry it much farther than the numerical amount posted in front of its name.

"It doesn't matter," Parker said of UCLA's superior seed. "When you step on the floor, none of that matters. It just matters who comes to play ... Right now, it's win or go home, and we're trying to win."


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