SAN DIEGO -- Norman Powell was apparently destined to step on San Diego State’s campus this season. Had UCLA not fired coach Ben Howland after last season, Powell, a San Diego native who floundered in Howland’s half-court offense, likely would have transferred, with his hometown school the most viable destination.
Powell stayed when the school hired Steve Alford, and by coincidence his team played its first two NCAA tournament games at SDSU’s Viejas Arena. Now thriving as both a premier defender and transition scorer, Powell elicited oohs and ahhs from the hometown crowd when, a minute into the second half of Sunday’s round of 32 game against Stephen F Austin, the 6-foot-4 guard drove around Lumberjacks star Desmond Haymon by reversing the ball around his back from right to left, completing a layup that put the Bruins ahead 46-32. It was just one of many highlights on the night for a UCLA team that cruised to a 77-60 win over Cinderella aspirant SFA en route to the program’s first Sweet 16 berth since 2008.
Alford has rejuvenated the Bruins’ storied program in part due to a fun open-court style of play that is vastly different from the plodding version preferred by his predecessor. While point guard Kyle Anderson is UCLA’s brightest star, no player has improved more nor played a more vital role in the new system than Powell, who scored 16 points against the Lumberjacks. Over his past four games, dating to UCLA’s run to the Pac-12 tournament championship, Powell is averaging 17.0 points while shooting 56.4 percent. Not bad for a guy who averaged just 5.8 points and shot 40.8 percent his first two seasons.
UCLA now has a 19-3 record when Powell scores in double figures.
“He’s best in transition and when he runs that floor hard, and [when] we get it to him, he's able to make plays for us,” Alford said this week. “He's been able to knock down open jump shots which has been a big help for us. So Norman has been great for us these past few weeks and the whole season, actually.”
SFA’s Haymon, the round of 64 hero whose late four-point play kept the Lumberjacks alive against VCU, struggled mightily against UCLA, which seemed determined to keep him out of rhythm. He scored 17 points but hit just 3-of-11 field goals.
Thomas Walkup had a monster game for SFA, notching 22 points and 11 rebounds, but it was not enough for the Lumberjacks to win their 30th consecutive game. The end of that streak means Blake Taylor, an SFA senior who serves as the school’s mascot – quite literally a Lumberjack – will finally be able to trim the “playoff beard” he’d been growing for more than three months.
Following Wichita State’s loss to Kentucky earlier Sunday, Stephen F. Austin briefly held the nation’s longest active winning streak. That designation now belongs to overall No. 1 seed Florida – who UCLA meets next.
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