Isaac Hamilton leads UCLA over USC, 96-70

Isaac Hamilton has a career-high 36 points to lead UCLA to a 96-70 rout of USC in Pac-12 tournament game

Isaac Hamilton realized that he essentially couldn't miss a few minutes before halftime in UCLA's 96-70 victory over USC on Thursday. He had just completed a three-point play, giving him 18 points in the first half.

Hamilton stayed hot in the second half, scoring 15 of UCLA's first 19 points. He finished with 36 points and the Bruins were headed for a Pac-12 semifinal matchup against top-seeded Arizona.

"You feel free," Hamilton said of his scoring spree at the MGM Grand Arena.

To start the second half, Hamilton made two three-pointers and then laughed. Later, he pounced on a loose ball, threw down a dunk and strutted. Then he bullied his way past a double team and shook his head with a shrug.

When you're in that zone, Hamilton said, you feel as if you're in high school again, that you can do no wrong.

At that point, he said, "You got to laugh."

Soon, USC was denying Hamilton the ball, and it made no difference at all. Hamilton made 13 of 17 shots, and the 36 points shattered his previous high of 21. It was the most points scored by a UCLA player since Dijon Thompson scored 39 in 2005.

"I mean, we just couldn't stop it," USC guard Katin Reinhardt said.

Friday's semifinal matchup could determine the Bruins' NCAA tournament fate.

UCLA (20-12) is ranked 50th in the Ratings Percentage Index, and most experts predict it needs a win over Arizona to make the NCAA tournament. The Bruins have played the toughest schedule in the Pac-12, but they have just one signature win, over Utah, No. 17 in RPI. A win over No. 7 Arizona would be their best of the season.

"I don't know if it's necessarily a have-to-play-in game," UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. "You approach it that way. But our resume looks pretty good."

The status of Kevon Looney for that game was not immediately clear. The freshman forward sustained what the team categorized as a facial injury in the first half against USC and did not return. The area under his left eye appeared discolored and swollen. In the second half, Looney left to undergo a CT scan to determine the extent of the injury.

"We're just waiting to hear back from our UCLA doctors what the prognosis is going to be," Alford said.

USC, which finished with a 12-20 record in Coach Andy Enfield's second season, hung with the Bruins for all of about eight minutes until Hamilton took over the game. Reinhardt scored an efficient 20 points, and Nikola Jovanovic had 17, but UCLA cruised past them with a 14-0 first-half run, followed closely by a 9-0 run.

The latter was capped by a Hamilton three-pointer. Bryce Alford, who earned the assist, ran back on defense and put his arm in the air before Hamilton had even released the shot.

"When a guy is playing like that, you're just trying to get it to him as many times as you can," he said. "Because he had that feeling where the basket was like an ocean."

It was Hamilton's best game in a volatile first active season at UCLA. The former McDonald's All-American, who sat out last season after transferring, has disappeared at times.

Then, on Sunday, Hamilton's grandmother died. They were close. Every off day, Hamilton said, he would try to visit her, and he talked with her Saturday. The next day, his sister called him before practice with the news.

Before the game Thursday, Hamilton said a prayer for her.

"I hope she's proud," he said.

About midway through the second half, when the heat was finally wearing off, Hamilton got over-excited and hoisted a corner three-pointer. It slipped from his hands and didn't even hit the rim.

Now it was Steve Alford's turn to laugh. Hamilton, after all, had earned some leeway.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

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