They could have easily gone to the NBA, the feisty point guard with a proven pedigree and the 7-footer with the jumper that’s the envy of some shooting coaches.
Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh opted instead to return to UCLA and burnish themselves into Bruins lore. They did just that Friday night at Pauley Pavilion while helping UCLA hold off Washington State, 96-82, in its Pac-12 Conference opener.
Holiday and Welsh became the 55th and 56th Bruins to score 1,000 points in their careers. Holiday, the junior point guard, hardly stopped there after reaching the milestone on a three-pointer with 7:45 left in the first half, finishing with a career-high 33 points on 11-for-18 shooting to go with 11 rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers while playing all 40 minutes.
“Aaron was spectacular,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “That was a special night for him and for Thomas to go over 1,000 career points, that’s something special when you’re playing at a place like UCLA.”
Welsh, the senior center, notched quadruple figures for career points on a free throw with 3:16 left in the game. He finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds, but his most impressive contributions might have been a hard screen that Jaylen Hands moved around before rising for a three-pointer followed by a pass out of the post to an open Hands for another three-pointer.
“He didn’t have 1,000 points and he was under the rim and he threw it out,” Hands said, “so that really speaks to Tom’s character and how he plays.”
UCLA (10-3 overall, 1-0 Pac-12) continued its historic dominance of Washington State (8-5, 0-1), but just barely, needing a 13-2 run for some breathing room after the Cougars had closed to within 64-62. Hands scored 16 of his 19 points in the second half to help the Bruins improve to 43-5 against the Cougars since the start of the 1993-94 season.
UCLA freshman forward Kris Wilkes added 14 points as the Bruins notched their third consecutive win while avoiding a letdown after their upset of then-No. 7 Kentucky last week.
Two familiar faces rejoined the Bruins on their bench. Jalen Hill and Cody Riley made their first appearance in Pauley Pavilion since the freshman forwards were suspended last month for shoplifting in China while their team prepared to face Georgia Tech in its season opener.
Both teams opened the game with what looked like a holiday hangover. UCLA made only one of its first 11 shots and was nearly matched miss for miss by the Cougars, who made only one of their first 10.
The Bruins might have been headed for embarrassment of historic proportions had it not been for Holiday. The younger brother of former Bruin and NBA point guard Jrue Holiday made four three-pointers, a handful of driving layups, a jumper and a floater in which he was fouled, making the resulting free throw for a three-point play.
His three-pointer that pushed him over 1,000 points for his career was acknowledged on the scoreboard, triggering cheers from fans.
“It’s a blessing,” Holiday said of reaching the threshold within an hour or so of Welsh. “I knew we were almost there. I didn’t know how many points we were away, but it’s great to do it on the same night.”
Said Welsh: “We have a special bond after playing together for three years. To hit the 1,000-point mark in the same night is pretty special.”
Forward Robert Franks had 20 points for the Cougars, who were outrebounded, 43-30 and outscored at the free-throw line, 26-12.
Sunday vs. Washington, 5 p.m., Pauley Pavilion, Pac-12 Networks — The Huskies had already exceeded last season’s win total before beating USC on Friday at the Galen Center.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch