Bryce Alford was alone in the left corner, raising his hands frantically.
Trailing Oregon 65-60 in the final minute of a late-season game last year, UCLA needed a miracle to pull off the win, with its stars guard/forward Kyle Anderson and guard Jordan Adams relegated to black jumpsuits on the bench as they served one-game suspensions.
Alford did his part.
Receiving a pass, Alford pump-faked as a defender flew by, then drained a three-point shot to narrow Oregon’s lead to two points.
Twenty-six seconds later, Alford, with two defenders draped all over him, hoisted a double clutch three-point prayer. The net barely moved as the ball went through.
UCLA now trailed by just one.
Seconds later, forward David Wear hit a deep three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. But for a brief few moments, Alford was the hero, the one bringing the crowd to its feet.
After a season’s worth of harsh criticism for his inconsistent play and cries of nepotism from UCLA fans, Alford’s 31 points and clutch shooting in that double-overtime loss to Oregon silenced the doubters for good.
But Alford – who has dealt with the pressure that comes with being his father’s son his entire life – learned to play though those critiques long ago.
As the son of Steve Alford, growing up in the Midwest wasn’t always easy for Bryce. The elder Alford had blazed a path of fame during his time playing at Indiana University, leading the Hoosiers to a national title in 1987 and earning two first-team All-American honors.
Bryce Alford could hardly leave his home with his family without his dad being recognized.
“You go back to Indiana and still today, young kids even know who he is when they see him in public, which is weird because they … never saw him play,” Alford said.
With his father’s fame – first as a player then later as a college coach – Bryce Alford routinely became known as “Steve Alford’s son” or “the coach’s kid.”
When Steve Alford accepted a job coaching at the University of New Mexico, Bryce Alford finally got the opportunity to separate himself from his dad’s celebrity in a state far removed from the lore of Indiana basketball.
Yet even in Albuquerque, N.M., Alford again became recognized as the coach’s son. When he entered his first year at La Cueva High School, he was determined to differentiate himself.
His play on the court did just that.
As a senior, he averaged 37.7 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game, setting the all-time single season scoring record for New Mexico and being named New Mexico’s “Mr. Basketball.”
“People kinda stopped calling me the coach’s son and started calling me Bryce,” Alford said.
After Steve Alford accepted the UCLA coaching job in March 2013, Bryce Alford once again was placed in the position of proving himself.
Alford had decided early in his high school career that he wanted to play for his dad in college, so Steve Alford handled calls from other schools’ coaches to inform them of his son’s decision. After the UCLA job offer, the entire Alford family made the joint decision to accept it.
“He wasn’t gonna leave if I wanted to stay and I wasn’t gonna stay if he wanted to leave,” Bryce Alford said.
Steve Alford got off to a shaky start with the Los Angeles media and fan base when his comments on the legal issues of a former player he coached at Iowa resurfaced. Fans upset with Alford’s handling of the situation seemed to transfer some of their animosity toward Bryce Alford once the season began.
After a pedestrian start to Alford’s season last year, averaging just five points on 37.9 percent shooting through the first six games, fans took to Twitter, questioning Alford’s qualifications – besides being the coach’s son – and throwing out words like “nepotism” to describe Alford’s role on the team compared to the crowd-pleasing guard Zach LaVine.
Playing in front of a new audience that was unfamiliar with his high school success and yet to disassociate him from his father, Alford felt pressure to prove he deserved his UCLA scholarship.
“I think that was kinda one of my problems at the beginning of the year. I started out really, really slow,” Alford said. “(I) had some really rough few games here and I think that was partially because I didn’t have that confidence and I thought that I needed to prove to others that I belonged here and prove to myself that I belong here instead of just believing (in myself).”
As the season progressed, Alford became more comfortable and confident, which was reflected by his play on the court.
Alford cited two main turning points. One was an 18-point game against Northwestern in the early-season Las Vegas Invitational tournament, the other a 20-point game in the Pac-12 opener against USC, which he said made him feel like he belonged.
By the time he dropped 31 on Oregon in late February, he had made it clear the Bruins’ package deal of Bryce and Steve Alford was a good one.
“Bryce obviously (had) an outstanding freshman season, really proved himself as a point guard,” Steve Alford said.
The Pac-12 agreed. Bryce Alford was named to the Freshman All-Pac-12 team.
This year, Alford will again be faced with new pressures to deal with, such as entering the starting lineup and becoming a team leader.
With three guards and four of last year’s five starters gone, UCLA will be more reliant than ever on Alford to step up. Steve Alford mentioned Bryce’s ability to push the tempo on offense as a key factor in the Bruins’ offense operating as it’s intended to.
While the turnover in personnel is sure to be problematic at times for UCLA this season, equally important is finding a replacement for the loss of leadership. UCLA lost two redshirt seniors and two sophomores, leaving it very young and inexperienced this year.
Though Bryce is just a sophomore, his coach is looking for him to become that leader. Bryce’s teammates have quickly bought in. While he isn’t the most experienced floor general, the example he has set so far has been enough to earn their trust.
“Bryce never takes a play off, he’s always pushing himself in the off-season and now. He’s always the first one in line to do whatever drill is up there,” said senior guard and fellow team leader Norman Powell. “He’s always talking and helping the guys along who are struggling with the drill. Whatever it is off the court, on the court, he’s leading by example and being vocal.”
More than just shouldering the pressure of stepping into a starting and leadership role, Alford is faced with an even more daunting task this season: replacing the production of Kyle Anderson, one of the nation’s top players last season, at point guard.
But for Alford, dealing with pressure is just another day in the life. He doesn’t mind it; in fact, he welcomes it.
“It’s cool to have that pressure on myself,” Alford said. “It’s something I enjoy.”