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UCLA takes heat off Steve Alford (for now) with victory over Tulsa

After downing Tulsa, Steve Alford and UCLA will now be expected by many to beat Stephen F. Austin and reach the Sweet Sixteen. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images) After downing Tulsa, Steve Alford and UCLA will now be expected by many to beat Stephen F. Austin and reach the Sweet Sixteen. (Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

SAN DIEGO -- Looking across the court at the benches during the late game here Friday night was a trip for someone who grew up watching college basketball in the late 1980s. There was Steve Alford, the former Indiana star guard now a quarter-century older, clapping on his UCLA Bruins. And there, just on the other side of the scorer’s table, was Danny Manning, imposing star of the 1988 national champion Kansas Jayhawks, arms folded while staring out at his Tulsa Golden Hurricane.

For Manning, in just his second season as a head coach, this was a house-money game. His 13th-seeded team was not expected to even reach the NCAA tournament much less knock off last week’s Pac-12 tournament champions.

Alford, on the other hand, might as well have had a Bunsen burner under his folding chair. Few fan bases are more demanding than UCLA’s, who turned on former coach Ben Howland shortly after reaching three straight Final Fours and never embraced Steve Lavin despite all those Sweet 16s. And Alford arrived in Westwood with no shortage of fodder for skepticism. Two of his three tourney teams at New Mexico lost to double-digit seeds. His last tourney team at Iowa lost to 14th seed Northwestern State. Despite seven appearances he has not been to the Sweet 16 as a head coach since doing it in 1999 at Southwest Missouri State.

So yeah, Alford needed to beat Tulsa. Which he did. And now, with another double-digit seed waiting Sunday in Stephen F. Austin, he’ll need to win that, too. But first he can appreciate a Round of 64 performance in which the Bruins continued the momentum from last week’s run in Las Vegas with a solid 76-59 victory in front of a heavily partisan UCLA crowd.

The Bruins led for all but the first minute, going up 35-30 at halftime and 45-32 within the first four minutes of the second half thanks to the aggressive play of Jordan Adams (21 points), some big shots from Norman Powell (15 points) and a defense that caused 16 turnovers. The Bruins faithful can stop nervously rehashing that 1994 first-round loss to Tulsa with Ed O’Bannon and Tyus Edney and start fretting about the charmed Lumberjacks, who will carry a 29-game winning streak into Sunday’s matchup.

But UCLA, which did not even get much Friday from star Kyle Anderson, will be the vastly more talented team and be heavily favored to reach their first Sweet 16 since 2008. If so, it would be huge weight off the shoulders of both the program and its first-year coach.

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