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UCLA gets a taste of the Rocky Mountain high

Steve Alford gets his first conference road sweep in 4 seasons as UCLA crushes Colorado and ekes by Utah.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Utah
Bryce Alford shot 12-21 from 3 over the weekend and earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors.
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

After 3 and a half seasons, Steve Alford can get the monkey off of his back.

Going into this weekend’s games against Colorado and Utah, Steve Alford’s Pac-12 conference record in road games was a brutal 10-19. The Bruins had never swept a road series, as they vacillated between losing to the lesser team or getting blown out by better teams on road trips.

It was a weighty millstone on the neck of the program, and after being denied a road sweep by Dillon Brooks’ heroics in Eugene two weeks ago, this road trip to Boulder and Salt Lake City became absolute must-win for reasons beyond the conference title chase and the hunt for a number 1 seed in the West region.

The Bruins came into Thursday against a reeling Colorado squad that had started 0-4 in Pac-12 play, and even in a game marred by constant foul calls (UCLA was whistled for 25 fouls and the Buffaloes shot 38 free throws) and a lack of flow in the first half, UCLA played sterling offense.

You can nitpick about the lack of defensive rebounding - Colorado collected 12 offensive rebounds and cleaned up the glass over UCLA - or the three-point defense - the Buffaloes hit 9 threes on 42% from distance - but that’s no fun at all.

It isn’t fun especially when we can talk about UCLA’s historic three point shooting performance, especially by one much-maligned Bryce Alford. It was absolutely stunning.

See for yourself:

In all, the mamma’s boy made 9 of his own, and UCLA set a new school record with 19 three pointers to tear the Buffaloes to shreds.

The first half felt a lot like the Michigan game, as Colorado shot well above average from distance and played hard against the Bruins. UCLA couldn’t get going offensively because of foul trouble, yet for all of the Buffs’ efforts, they were still down 6.

UCLA turned it on in the second half, or at least it felt that way. The Bruins shot just about even over both halves - 55% in the first half with nine triples, 58% in the second with ten treys - but without the constant foul calls and Colorado running out of steam as the game wore on, the Bruins put on an absolute clinic.

In all, Bryce Alford finished with 37 points on 11-18 shooting, a ruthlessly efficient way to break the will of an entire hostile opponent arena. Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday both came alive on Thursday after weeks of lackluster play, and they combined to go 11-19 from the field and 6-10 from three point range. Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf are the engines of the UCLA offense, but the presence of Hamilton and Holiday as 4th and 5th options makes this team truly elite, and we got a glimpse of the nonconference offense that took the country by storm on Thursday.

If there was any place for Steve Alford and his Bruins to finally get that elusive road sweep, the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City was it.

Two years ago, the Bruins were drubbed 71-39, and in two games on the road against Utah, Bryce Alford had not made a single shot. Steve Alford had yet to win a game there as well, and after already trailing behind Arizona and Oregon, it was now or never for the Bruins to keep pace and keep the dreams of a conference title alive.

In stark contrast to Thursday’s game, Saturday’s against Utah was a breathless affair. The two teams only combined for 16 turnovers and 26 personal fouls, and neither team led by more than 10. When UCLA went on a mini-run, Utah answered right back, and even as the Utes led by as much as 9 well into the second half, the Bruins dug deep to fight back.

On defense, while the rebounding was better on Saturday, Utah shot above 50% and collected 18 assists. The Bruins had particular trouble with Utah dribble drives, and every guard was burned at least once.

The defense is what it is at this point: capable of smothering teams such as Stanford and swarming to every ball, but also prone to break downs by quick perimeter guards and pliable on the defensive glass.

On Thursday, it was Bryce Alford’s show. On Saturday, Lonzo Ball proved why he is a surefire NBA lottery pick, as he played all 40 minutes, scored 17 points, dished out 8 assists and collected 6 rebounds and 5 (!!) steals. He was phenomenal.

You knew he’d be good on Saturday when he started the game with a shot like this.

But most crucially, UCLA’s finish saw them came up with the big plays in crunch time to win. After losing 9 points to Oregon over the last 4 minutes to lose by 2, the Bruins won the last 5 minutes by 5 points to steal the victory (in reality, it was 7, as the Utes hit a two pointer down 3 as time expired). Bryce Alford and Aaron Holiday hit HUGE threes to put UCLA up one both times, and Holiday’s came after he collected his own miss on the previous shot.

Even while they didn’t shoot it well, the Bruins hustled and gave themselves extra chances on the glass. While the defense, especially on the perimeter, was malleable and struggled, they came up with just enough stops at the end. The momma’s boy and his team came up huge in a hostile environment.

Games like Saturday are huge steps for the Bruins to take on their journey to a Final Four, especially with a visit from the red-hot Arizona Wildcats looming this upcoming Saturday.

Earning their first road sweep in 4 years was another one of those huge steps.