SAN DIEGO — Choke artist, no more.
When Steve Alford stood in Pauley Pavilion nearly a year ago in a formal introduction to the Los Angeles press corps, he carried a lackluster 5-7 postseason record. He had not been to the Sweet 16 since 1999, when he was 34-year-old rising star in coaching.
Last March, his third-seeded New Mexico team fell to No. 12 Harvard, handing the Crimson their first-ever NCAA tournament victory.
Forget all that. With UCLA's 77-60 win over Stephen F. Austin on Sunday night, Alford is now responsible for the program's deepest postseason run since 2008.
Alford himself didn't say much when asked about the personal gratification he took in finally finding his way back to this point. He spoke of being humbled just to coach UCLA, about being proud and blessed, about tradition and opportunity.
His players did that for him.
“People can't say that Coach Alford hasn't been to the Sweet 16 again,” said sophomore forward Tony Parker. “He's here now. It's fun for us.”
His son, Bryce, was just 4 years old on that last trip. He said all he remembers from that run is wearing striped Southwest Missouri State pajamas.
Bryce added that his father hasn't said much about that Sweet 16 over the years, but chalked up the drought to not catching the right breaks.
“It's one of those things where you've got to have a little bit of luck and you've got to keep on focusing,” he said. “I think this definitely helps him.”
An even more imposing obstacle looms ahead on Thursday, at Memphis' FedEx Forum: top-seeded Florida, a team that has won a school-record 28 straight games and has haunted the Bruins for nearly a decade.
The Gators have ended the Bruins' season three times in the past eight years, each time in memorable fashion.
“When we saw that pairing, when we saw Florida in our side of the bracket, we were like 'Oh man, does everyone just want to see another UCLA-Florida matchup?' ” said forward Travis Wear, who redshirted in 2010-11. “We're looking forward to it, though. It's going to be a great game.”
In 2006, a group that featured Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer dominated UCLA, 73-57, in the national title game.
In 2007, an identical Florida starting five bounced the Bruins in the Final Four, 76-66.
In 2011, the Bruins fell, 73-65, in the round of 32.
Is this UCLA team closer?
“I definitely think so,” Wear said. “The way we're playing right now, I think we could beat anybody.”