Outfought inside by smaller counterparts, overrun for stretches while offering little resistance, UCLA finally found a way to push back in a taut game against a heavy underdog.
The Bruins turned into the can’t-miss favorites.
Aaron Holiday made a layup. TJ Leaf buried a jumper. Isaac Hamilton powered in for a dunk. Lonzo Ball drove for a layup. Holiday made another layup. Ball made a three-pointer. Holiday made another layup. Thomas Welsh converted a jumper. Leaf dunked. Bryce Alford made a three-pointer. Welsh sank two more jumpers.
Twelve shots. Twelve makes.
UCLA’s dandy dozen started roughly halfway through the second half Friday night at the Golden 1 Center and powered the third-seeded Bruins to a 97-90 victory over 14th-seeded Kent State in an NCAA tournament first-round game that had been up for grabs for more than 30 minutes.
UCLA was leading by only eight points when Holiday started the stretch with 12:20 remaining. By the time Welsh’s jumper completed the run, the Bruins held a 92-70 advantage with 3:19 left.
UCLA finally pulled away after getting some stops to go with its offensive efficiency; the Bruins’ advantage had been only eight points after six consecutive made shots.
“We knew that we were bigger than them, so a lot of our shots were inside,” said Ball, who gutted out 15 points, four rebounds and three assists while playing through a bruised right hip sustained late in the first half and tape over the left thumb he sprained last week.
Leaf provided the might inside with 23 points on eight-for-12 shooting to go with six rebounds and Welsh added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Bruins (30-4), who advanced to play sixth-seeded Cincinnati (30-5) in the second round Sunday.
Ball was dealing with more than an assortment of injuries. A website report said that his mother, Tina, had suffered a stroke last month that required life-threatening skull surgery to relieve brain pressure. UCLA has now played seven games since the date given in the story.
Part of UCLA’s problem defensively was the absence of freshman forward Ike Anigbogu, who missed the game after spraining his left foot in practice Tuesday. He was listed as day to day and Bruins Coach Steve Alford said he hoped the shot-blocking specialist could play Sunday against the Bearcats.
Ball surpassed Larry Drew II to become UCLA’s single-season all-time leader in assists when he found Holiday for a layup midway through the second half that gave the Bruins a 63-53 lead.
“Credit to my teammates,” said Ball, who has 257 assists this season. “Can’t get an assist without them scoring. I thank them.”
Holiday added 15 points and 11 assists off the bench in his most meaningful performance of the season.
“He finished when he needed to finish,” Coach Steve Alford said. “He passed when he needed to pass. His decision-making today I thought it was as good as it’s been in a long time.”
Guard Jaylin Walker finished with 23 points for the Golden Flashes (22-14), who had 15 offensive rebounds to UCLA’s six and won the battle of second-chance points, 15-4, to remain in contention despite shooting only 43.7% to UCLA’s 62.7%.
“I think if there was a negative about tonight, we didn’t do a very good job of taking that away from them,” Steve Alford said of the offensive rebounds.
Leaf staged a personal showcase in the first half. He threw down a vicious one-handed dunk in transition, made two three-pointers as well as an up-and-under layup and a running jumper while getting fouled on the way to 16 points before halftime.
Ball also got off to a strong start with 10 points in the first half, escaping serious injury after getting undercut and landing awkwardly on his right hip shortly before halftime. He remained in the game, missing the subsequent free throw.
“I’m fine,” said Ball, who finally departed the game with 3:10 left and UCLA ahead by 22 points. “Finished the game, got up. I’m good.”
The Bruins appeared to be in control from the tipoff, scoring the game’s first eight points while Kent State missed 10 of its first 11 shots. UCLA would extend its cushion to 17 points before the Golden Flashes surged back to close within 47-39 by halftime.
“We kinda let up,” Steve Alford said. “Our shot selection was worse. We didn’t defend. There is a poise to what you want to do offensively, but you’ve got to have poise defensively too. I didn’t think we did that as well in the first half as a team.”
The Bruins found their touch when they needed it. Precisely so.