Al­fords wind­ing down suc­cess­ful run to­gether at UCLA

Imperial Valley Press - - SPORTS - BY JOHN MAR­SHALL AP Bas­ket­ball Writer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Steve Al­ford was crit­i­cized for not win­ning enough, con­sid­ered to be on the hot seat head­ing into this sea­son. Bryce Al­ford was knocked for shoot­ing too much, ex­pected to have a hard time tak­ing a back seat to fresh­man phe­nom Lonzo Ball.

Look at them now. Through all the tri­als and tribu­la­tions, father and son ar­rive at the end of their four-year run at UCLA to­gether with a chance to do some­thing spe­cial on their way out.

“There have been ups and downs and the chal­lenges of be­ing a coach’s kid and deal­ing with that in LA and the pres­sures that come be­hind that,” Bryce Al­ford said. “But at the end of the day I wouldn’t trade my ex­pe­ri­ence at UCLA and my ex­pe­ri­ence for any­thing and I don’t know if I could have done it with­out him by my side.”

When Steve Al­ford was hired at UCLA in 2013, it came as a bit of a sur­prise. He had just signed a 10-year con­tract ex­ten­sion at New Mex­ico and said he was happy in Al­bu­querque, leav­ing Lo­bos fans feel­ing jilted.

UCLA sup­port­ers were not ex­actly thrilled about his hir­ing, be­liev­ing he was he was not an up­grade from Ben How­land, who led the Bru­ins to the Fi­nal Four three times. They wanted a big­ger name.

Al­ford took the pres­sure of coaching at a col­lege bas­ket­ball blue blood head on and had a suc­cess­ful start in West­wood, tak­ing UCLA to the Sweet 16 his first two sea­sons.

One below-av­er­age sea­son changed per­cep­tions of Al­ford quickly. As UCLA strug­gled to a 1517 record last sea­son, fans be­gan call­ing for his ouster de­spite a mas­sive buy­out. One dis­grun­tled fan flew a ban­ner from the back of a plane that read “UCLA de­serves bet­ter! Fire Al­ford!” and an­other had a sim­i­lar mes­sage put on a bill­board truck. A pe­ti­tion call­ing for his ter­mi­na­tion quickly gained more than 1,000 sig­na­tures.

Al­ford penned an apol­ogy let­ter to Bru­ins fans and re­turned a one-year con­tract ex­ten­sion signed af­ter his first sea­son. Even af­ter signing his best re­cruit­ing class since ar­riv­ing in West­wood, headed by Ball and TJ Leaf, Al­ford was un­der pres­sure to win this sea­son.

The Bru­ins did. With Ball run­ning the show and the younger Al­ford slid­ing com­fort­ably into a more off-the-ball spot, UCLA won its first 13 games while ris­ing to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and en­tered the NCAA Tour­na­ment at 29-4.

The Bru­ins won their South Re­gion opener 9780 over Kent State and will face Cincin­nati on Sun­day with a spot in the Sweet 16 on the line.

“We have had some good wins, some key wins, lost four games in the year to three teams and yet we have avenged all those losses,” Steve Al­ford said. “To be at 33 games in and start­ing the na­tional tour­na­ment know­ing that you’ve beaten ev­ery­body on your sched­ule speaks vol­umes to what th­ese young men have done be­cause that’s not easy to do.”

Bryce Al­ford has been a key cog in his fi­nal sea­son with the Bru­ins.

He orig­i­nally signed to play at New Mex­ico and fol­lowed his father to UCLA. De­spite the Bru­ins’ early suc­cess, he was crit­i­cized for shoot­ing too much, for hav­ing too much free­dom playing un­der his father. Bryce also was a tar­get for op­pos­ing fans, his scrappy play and brash­ness get­ting un­der skin across the Pac-12 and be­yond.

Bryce didn’t lis­ten to the vit­riol and kept fir­ing away, often hit­ting shots in rapid suc­ces­sion to rally UCLA to wins or push them past a ral­ly­ing op­po­nent. When Ball ar­rived with so much fan­fare, the younger Al­ford ended up fin­ish­ing sec­ond on the team in scor­ing at 15.6 points per game while shoot­ing 46 per­cent from 3-point range.

His ca­reer is wind­ing down, the 6-foot-3 guard will leave is UCLA’s all­time leader in 3-point­ers made with 322 and his 1,893 points is fifth on the Bru­ins’ il­lus­tri­ous all­time scor­ing list.

“Very proud of him from a coaching stand­point of see­ing how he’s evolved and got­ten bet­ter as a player each and ev­ery year,” Steve Al­ford said. “Very proud of him as a father of how he’s han­dled ev­ery­thing. He’s been un­wa­ver­ing. He’s stayed true to his be­liefs. He’s been a tremen­dous team­mate, great leader, some­body that guys want to play with and be around.”

The Al­fords’ time on the court to­gether could end Sun­day or last all the way un­til the confetti canons fire in Ari­zona. Re­gard­less of what hap­pens, it’s been a once-ina-life­time trip.

AP PHOTO

UCLA coach Steve Al­ford talks with his son, guard Bryce Al­ford, dur­ing the first half of a first-round game against Kent State in the men’s NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment in Sacramento on Fri­day.

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