BILL PLASCHKE

UCLA features the same players but a different team

In just a year, first-year Coach Steve Alford and the Bruins have turned things around, won the Pac-12 championship and could have a strong seeding in next week's NCAA tournament.

LAS VEGAS — They are skidding into the Madness on their bellies, Travis Wear diving and sliding and fighting for a loose ball he will own forever.

They are flying into the Madness on their toes, Kyle Anderson leaning and lifting and undressing one of the nation's top defenses down to their scowls.

But mostly, UCLA is headed into the Madness exactly as Jordan Adams pushed it there Saturday with a last-minute, off-balance three-pointer that gave the Bruins a 75-71 upset of fourth-ranked Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game.

This is a team gutsy enough to jack up a big shot, tough enough to withstand a big shove and talented enough to make a splash.

"We are a real dangerous team right now,'' said Wear late Saturday afternoon while running his fingers over a piece of freshly cut net.

Dangerous is certainly one word for them. Another one might be, stunning?

A year ago, this tournament served as the final hours of a death watch for the UCLA career of coach Ben Howland. The young stars such as Anderson and Norman Powell were underachievers. The veterans such as the Wear twins were lost causes. Adams was sidelined with a broken foot. The Bruins were moments from a coaching vacancy and several years from contention.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon, when many of these same Bruins were standing in the middle of the MGM Grand Garden Arena covered in silver confetti, dancing to the UCLA band, punching giant balloons, back from the dark.

They had chased the thousands of roaring — then whining — Arizona fans back into the casino. They had pushed themselves into a possible top-four seeding in next week's NCAA tournament. They were essentially the same players from a year ago, but only on a vastly different team.

Anderson is now one of the most unstoppable point guards in the country. Powell has become a slashing force, the Wear twins — Travis and David — are showing a toughness many have doubted. And then there is Adams, who is simply referred to by his coach as "Money.''

Of course, the real currency in this comeback is that coach, who celebrated Saturday's win by hugging his players from the edge of the scrum, staying in the background while shouting away his voice. Steve Alford was soaking in a moment that a UCLA coach has not felt in six years, one that many wondered whether he was capable of achieving. Remember, this was the New Mexico guy living on his reputation as a former Indiana star who was hired last spring to criticism from many corners, including this one, the questions centering on his ability to win big games while coaching on a big stage.

Although one season isn't enough to answer those questions, this one three-day stretch in which his Bruins clawed their way to three big wins and a possible strong seeding in the NCAA tournament is a pretty good response.

If the Bruins aren't back, they are certainly headed in that direction. And if this big Bruins ship is too big for Alford, well, he has thus far turned it around as if it were a dinghy.

"This is unbelievable,'' Alford said. "This has been a dream come true.''

The players clearly feel the same, with that dream being a coach who has repeatedly told them to loosen it up, fire it up and have fun. This philosophy has allowed the Bruins to use all those skills that once made them high school stars and has given them the freedom to come out fighting.

They were leading Arizona by 10 points Saturday before the showroom-style smoke cleared, temporarily quieting the overwhelming majority of Wildcats fans who had turned Vegas into Tucson.

"Coach didn't want us to come out on our heels, he wanted us to punch first, and that's what we did, we put them back on their heels,'' said Powell.

The Wildcats regrouped and fought back in the second half as their fans screamed in delight, but UCLA didn't crack. Every time Arizona would grab a lead, the Bruins would respond, until the game was tied with two-and-a-half minutes remaining and Adams knocked the ball loose from Arizona's Nick Johnson and it rolled through an empty backcourt … until Travis Wear outran the celebrated Aaron Gordon, dived in front of him, grabbed the ball and called a timeout.

Said Wear: "I know I was neck-and-neck with Gordon and I said, 'I'm just gonna get in the air before he does.'''

Said Alford: "Of all the great plays in college basketball this year, that should be at the top of the list. I don't know if we win the game if we don't get that possession.''

All of which set up the Bruins' winning play, which was diagramed from the sidelines in a typical Alford late-game meeting. The players were laughing, and the coach was pointing to the gunner who would save them.

"I come into the huddle and I say, 'How about Money?''' said Alford.

When the game ended, the Bruins showed their youth when Anderson, who scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, ran over to his mother, Suzanne, and shouted, "Mommy, mommy, I told you I could do this!''

A year ago, this was a team only a mother could love. A year ago, chaos. Today, Madness.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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