A dozen games into the season, the question surrounding UCLA has shifted.
It’s no longer what it’s going to take for the Bruins to keep winning but what will be required for them to lose a game.
UCLA played a ragged, turnover-filled first half Saturday afternoon at T-Mobile Arena and didn’t shoot particularly well over the final 20 minutes. None of it mattered. The second-ranked Bruins prevailed fairly comfortably, 86-73, over Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic after their four-guard lineup provided the finishing touches.
UCLA played the final 8½ minutes with guards Lonzo Ball, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday and Bryce Alford alongside power forward TJ Leaf. The Bruins immediately generated two steals and seemed a step quicker than the Buckeyes for the balance of the game, forcing six turnovers that allowed them to go into run-and-fun mode.
“That’s the beauty of this team,” said Ball, whose all-around brilliance was reflected in his nine points, nine assists, eight rebounds and three steals. “We’ve got a lot of different things we can go with, and it’s just another way we can get five on the court and play together.”
Holiday collected 20 points, five steals and four rebounds and Alford added 20 points for the Bruins, who improved to 12-0 with one game left before the start of Pac-12 Conference play. It’s a victory total UCLA did not reach until late-January last season during a downward slide into basketball oblivion.
“We’d go through security with our heads down and like super upset,” Alford recalled with a smile, “so it’s a little bit different feeling to go on road trips like this and go win away from home and kind of celebrate on the bus and be happy.”
The buoyant ending came courtesy of the guard-heavy lineup that UCLA Coach Steve Alford likes to use at the end of first halves and games, particularly when his team is protecting a lead. The four guards can all pass and shoot and are adept at making free throws as well as the smart play.
They entered Saturday with the Bruins ahead by only six points and increased the lead to as many as 13. Steve Alford noted one play in which Ball took an outlet pass and zipped the ball across the court to Bryce Alford with the Buckeyes (8-3) likely to foul in comeback mode, a heady move considering Alford entered the game making 89.1% of his free throws.
Alford also made a three-pointer to give the Bruins an 81-71 lead with 1:51 left before Hamilton fed Ball for an alley-oop dunk that helped UCLA extend its best start since the 2006-07 team won its first 14 games.
Forward Marc Loving had 19 points for Ohio State, which made only five of 24 three-pointers (20.8%) and was outrebounded, 41-31, getting bullied on the boards after the Bruins had made negating the Buckeyes’ physical play a priority.
“Whatever we end up reemphasizing or focusing on,” Steve Alford said, “this team just, there’s just a trust factor there that it’s a surreal group.”
UCLA played a third consecutive game without center Thomas Welsh, who appeared to be moving without any discomfort in warmups from the bruised right knee he suffered last week. Steve Alford indicated that Welsh may not return until the Bruins open Pac-12 play against Oregon on Dec. 28.
The Bruins were uncharacteristically sloppy in the first half, committing 12 turnovers, including four by Leaf. Ohio State scored the final seven points before halftime to pull within 40-37 and trigger some pointed discussion in the UCLA locker room.
“Oh, coach got on our case,” Hamilton said. “The first half we kind of stood and didn’t play the game we [like to] play and then second half, we came out and played up-tempo and got good shots and when we get good shots, it’s rare that we turn the ball over.”
The Bruins committed only three turnovers after halftime, pulling away despite making only four of 17 three-pointers over the final 20 minutes. The savvy of the players on the court more than compensated for a few bricks.
“The biggest thing about that lineup at the end of games,” Bryce Alford said, “whoever has the ball in their hands, it’s a player who’s very smart and knows what to do in that situation.”
Wednesday vs. Western Michigan, 8 p.m., Pauley Pavilion, Pac-12 Networks — The Bruins’ final tuneup before Pac-12 Conference play will come against the Broncos (3-6), who will face Washington on Sunday before heading to Los Angeles.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch