The ball went sailing. The Ball trotted backward. The blitz was on.
After grinding through a half of burdensome basketball Sunday night, UCLA suddenly flicked Cincinnati off its shoulders with three quick whisks, in barely a blink, turning a 30-win team into dust in the wind.
Lonzo Ball, trey. Lonzo Ball, trey. Bryce Alford, trey. Whisk, whisk, whisk, in a span of exactly 1 minute 3 seconds, swishes become roars become Bruins dancing on the bench and Bearcats slumping into their shirts.
Ball backpedaled on the first one. Ball raised his right hand to the screaming crowd on the second one. Alford bounced and shouted into the assisting Aaron Holliday on the third one.
It was a 9-0 run that felt like a 90-0 run. It was dramatic, it was theatrical, it was Hollywood, and now it will be Memphis, as the Bruins advanced to the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16 there after that second-half burst propelled them to a 79-67 victory over Cincinnati at the the Golden 1 Center.
“This team showed its colors again,” Coach Steve Alford said, and on this night they went from dark to absolutely blinding.
The Bruins were beaten up in the first half. They trailed by three points. They were getting punched from all sides by a tough Cincinnati defense that wasn’t tiring.
TJ Leaf had missed all five of his shots. Bryce Alford had missed four of his five shots. They should be have been rattled. They had won only three of seven games in which they trailed at the half.
“We’re not used to doing that,” Bryce Alford said.
But there’s something about these Bruins, something that can perhaps be found in the blank expression that fills Ball’s face throughout seemingly every moment of every game.
They never show fear. They never act worried. They know they can turn it on in the blink of a Ball, a quick as a Leaf, in an Alford second.
“All you can do is stay aggressive and continue to trust in what you do,” Bryce Alford said.
He stepped out of the locker room and hit a three-pointer to start the second half. The leads changed a couple of times until, with Cincinnati leading, 47-46, with 14 minutes to play, Leaf grabbed the rebound of a Cincinnati miss and passed it to Ball.
Ball did not pass it back. He casually dribbled downcourt and, as if understanding it was finally time to end this nonsense, jacked up a three-pointer that swished and started the Bruins on that 9-0 run that started the roll that ended the game.
Doesn’t it seem like Ball always knows the right moment to make the big play? How does that always happen?
“I feel like I have a good feel for the game and when it’s time for me to make plays, I try to do my best,” Ball said in the postgame news conference in his typical low-key fashion.
At this answer, his coach couldn’t help himself, and Steve Alford quickly interrupted.
“He has a great feel for the game,” Alford said. “Not good, great.”
This is what the Bruins do. This is how the Bruins roll. They feel the game. They embrace the moment. They get it.
The season-long electricity that was missing during their poor Pac-12 Conference tournament play — were they just bored? — has returned in full blaze. This is why they can beat anybody and could easily run through March Madness into April
“I don’t know of a more fun basketball team to watch when we’re clicking and we’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been clicking,” Steve Alford said.
Each of the three pointers was preceded by a tough defensive stop, a frustated Cincinnati miss, the Bearcats clanking consecutive three-point attempts and then clunking a short jumper. It’s as if these Bruins know how to turn up the heat defensively, turn that into points, and when that has to happen.
“We didn’t score the ball … and they got out in transition and you saw them make a couple of shots,” Bearcats senior guard Troy Caupain said, still stunned afterward. “They got on a run, and the game went how it went.”
It went where Bryce Alford scored 16 points, Leaf wound up with 11 points and seven rebounds, and Ball nearly had a triple-double with 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
Earlier in the day, after Josh Jackson put on a show for Kansas, this columnist was asked whether Jackson was actually a better NBA prospect than Ball. A few hours later, Ball showed, emphatically, that there is no better NBA prospect, he’ll be the first pick, and the Lakers can only pray it will go to them, at which point the coolest kid still probably won’t even crack a smile.
“I’ve been playing like that my whole life, nothing new,” Ball said. “It’s a five-on-five game, not just me out there.”
All of this sets up a terrific five-on-five rematch with Kentucky on Friday in Memphis, Tenn., the Bruins having beaten the Wildcasts, 97-92, in Rupp Arena in early December.
Kentucky will have extra motivation. Kentucky will have more top freshmen who have spend the last four months growing. Kentucky will even lead in the distraction category, as the Wildcats media will surely be asking Alford, as he was asked Sunday night, whether he has already been offered the vacant coaching job at his alma mater Indiana.
Alford smartly refused to address it, as he probably should have done last week when he kept the talk alive by refusing to squelch it.
“This is about our team and what these guys are doing,” he said.
He’s right about that, and as Sunday night proved, it’s not just what the Bruins are doing, but how they are doing it. In a tournament known for one shining moment, the Bruins churned them out in threes.