LOUISVILLE, Ky. - One week ago, UCLA was in limbo and lucky to be there. At best, the Bruins were clinging to an unlikely hope that they would be invited to play in the NCAA Tournament. At that point, they did all they could.
"We were praying a lot," center Tony Parker said Saturday after their praying had resoundingly turned to playing.
Yes, UCLA got into the Big Dance, and has turned into one of the prominent dancers. Now the Bruins have made it into the Sweet 16, beating University of Alabama-Birmingham, 92-75, and, in the words of point guard Bryce Alford, "proving that we belong."
After squeaking by SMU on Thursday, the Bruins (22-13) played Saturday as if they never want to leave. They pounded the ball inside to Parker, who had 19 of his 28 points in the first half, and throttled UAB with depth. Alford added 22 points and the three other starters also scored in double figures.
All of that seemed inconceivable last Sunday, when the bracketologists generally dismissed UCLA's chances of getting in, and later that evening, when critics saw the Bruins' inclusion as the sign of the selection committee's greatest mistake.
"We were going into the [Pac-12] conference tournament hoping we could play well, and then we lost a tough one to Arizona," said Parker, a 6-9 junior. "The selection committee thought we were good enough to play in this tournament and I think we proved it."
There certainly will be no argument from UAB (20-16), a No. 14 seed in the South Regional that had stunned No. 3 Iowa State on Thursday with a one-point win fueled by strength on the glass. The Blazers' strength turned into vulnerability this time. UCLA outrebounded them 41-26 and outscored them 52-22 in the paint.
Alford repeatedly drove and dished to Parker or other frontcourt players. So did Isaac Hamilton, who had seven assists.
"We did a really good job of getting it to the rim, and then Tony really finished well," said coach Steve Alford, Bryce's father. "You're looking at 6-9, 265 -- since he's not in here, 275. He's a big body. So when he's going to the rim, that's hard to guard."
Again, no dissension from UAB, which got 25 points from guard Robert Brown. Coach Jerod Haase said, "We tried man [-to-man]. We tried zone. We tried man. We tried zone. But at the end of the day, we weren't able to guard."
Only a real UCLA optimist could have foreseen this. Among those was senior guard Norman Powell, who completed his last final exam on Friday and passed a basketball test with 15 points and 5-for-8 shooting Saturday.
When he was asked to compare how he felt Saturday with how he had felt the week before, Powell said, "The same thing I'm thinking right now, to make it to the Sweet 16 and make a run in this tournament. I was confident the whole time."
Coach Alford knew it was no cinch. Last Sunday was harrowing for him. "You're anxious because you're not in control," he said, recalling what it was like to watch the selection show: "You hear 'U.C' then they say 'Irvine.' Then they say 'the Bruins of' and then they say 'Belmont.' You're hoping strike three doesn't come.
"You hope you get the call next time," said the man who will bring his team to Houston later this week for the South Regional, "and fortunately we did."