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March 19, 2006SAN DIEGO ? Arron Afflalo and UCLA showed they can also win the nail-biting games in the NCAA Tournament. Afflalo hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining as the second-seeded Bruins survived a tough challenge from No. 10 Alabama for a 62-59 second-round victory. Advancing to the regional semifinals for the first time since 2002, UCLA (29-6) will face No. 3 Gonzaga in Oakland on Thursday.
"This is what they've worked so hard for, to get a chance to continue to play," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We've got our work really cut out for us in playing one of the top teams in the country in Gonzaga."
Making their first appearance in the "Big Dance" in four years, the Bruins drew some early attention with a convincing 78-44 triumph over Belmont in Thursday's first-round game.
UCLA overcame an inspired effort by Alabama (18-13), which has rallied since losing leading scorer and rebounder Chuck Davis with an ACL tear in early January.
UCLA snapped a 30-30 halftime tie as Jordan Farmar and Ryan Hollins both completed three-point plays in the opening moments. Although the Bruins pushed their lead to eight points, the Crimson Tide stayed close.
Sophomore guard Ronald Steele hit a pull-up jumper over Farmar and split two free throws to cut Alabama's deficit to 57-56 with 1:05 to play.
Warming up after failing to score in the first half, Afflalo knocked down his third 3-pointer of the second half 30 seconds later.
"As far as the shot goes, I was definitely aware of the fact that I had a horrendous first half, but I'm fortunate that my teammates still had faith in me to take that shot," Afflalo said.
The four-point cushion proved vital as Steele was fouled on a 3-pointer by freshman Darren Collison with 21 seconds left and made all three free throws.
Bruins freshman Luc Richard Mbah a Moute was fouled and split two free throws to make it 61-59 with 19 seconds to play.
Steele, who finished 2-of-6 from the arc, had his potential go-ahead 3-pointer just scrape the front of the rim with seven seconds left. UCLA's Cedric Bozeman picked up the loose ball as was fouled in the final second, splitting a pair of free throws to seal the win.
"I was just trying to mainly guard the 3-point shot," Afflalo said. "But, he's (Steele) so quick, he made a sudden stop and gained enough space to get a look. Fortunately, it just fell short."
"Today, we were a jump shot away from being in the 'Sweet 16," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "I wouldn't change a thing. I have as much confidence in Ronald Steele as anyone I ever have. We got what we wanted and it just didn't go down."
Although Steele had a chance to propel Alabama into the next round, Howland blamed his team's inability at the free-throw line as the reason why the game was so close. UCLA shot 5-of-13 from the stripe, missing six straight free throws in a row late in the second half.
"The bottom line is if we make our foul shots, it doesn't come down to Steele taking a 3-point shot at the end," Howland said.
Farmar scored 18 points, hitting 5-of-10 3-pointers, and Afflalo added 13 for UCLA, which shot 51 percent (24-of-47) from the field and held a 21-10 advantage in points off turnovers.
"Good guard play is critical to any team that's going to win championships," Howland said. "We have the best guard combo in the country, in my opinion, in Farmar and Afflalo."
Steele led Alabama with 21 points but also committed four of his team's 15 giveaways.
One of the players who had stepped up his play in the absence of Davis, Jermareo Davidson scored 12 points but grabbed just two rebounds, seven below his season average.