UCLA survives in overtime against a feisty Central Arkansas team
The UCLA students conducted their usual pregame roll call Wednesday night, chanting each player’s name and rhythmically clapping until being acknowledged with a hand wave.
There were a few notable absences.
Freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were excluded from the routine after being suspended indefinitely from the team earlier in the day for their role in a shoplifting spree at a mall in China last week.
The trio did not attend No. 23 UCLA’s 106-101 overtime victory over Central Arkansas at Pauley Pavilion in the Bruins’ home opener. About the only reminder of the suspended players were a few students wearing Ball jerseys, though it was the No. 2 made popular by former Bruins and current Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball.
LiAngelo Ball, Riley and Hill missed a sloppy showing from their visibly fatigued and jetlagged teammates, who were only four days removed from their return flight from Shanghai. The Bruins played like their minds and bodies were elsewhere before a 9-0 run in overtime that included a three-pointer and a reverse layup from forward Kris Wilkes.
“For our guys not to succumb to ‘Our legs our tired, we’ve been on a long trip,’” UCLA coach Steve Alford said, “that would have been the easy way out and I think that’s what I appreciate about them.”
The signs of fatigue were everywhere. The Bruins missed their first six free throws in the second half and made only 20 of 32 for the game. Center Thomas Welsh uncharacteristically struggled with his touch, making only eight of 19 shots on the way to 16 points.
Aaron Holiday led UCLA with 24 points and Wilkes had 20 points to go with 12 rebounds, providing some relief on a challenging day for the Bruins and their fans.
With UCLA clinging to a two-point lead and about 51/2 minutes left in the second half, a fan yelled, “Wake up, Bruins, wake up!”
It was Central Arkansas (1-2) that stirred in the final minute after the Bruins left Jordan Howard open in the corner, where he took an inbound pass and made a three-pointer that gave the Bears an 86-85 lead with four seconds left.
After the Bruins took a timeout, UCLA’s Jaylen Hands took the inbound pass and drove to the basket, colliding with the Bears’ Mathieu Kamba.
The whistle blew. The call was blocking on Kamba, sending Hands to the line with a chance to give the Bruins the lead. Hands missed the first free throw, made the second, and the game went to overtime after the Bears missed a desperation shot.
Howard had 35 points while making eight of 15 three-pointers for Central Arkansas, which nearly completed the upset after making 18 of 35 from behind the arc.
The Bruins used only eight players. They had expected to go 11 deep this season before Ball, Riley and Hill were suspended. The players appeared contrite earlier Wednesday while acknowledging their role in multiple thefts during the team’s trip to China to play Georgia Tech.
The entire team was left to deal with the fallout.
“Obviously, press conferences and the amount of cameras, these guys see all that,” Alford said. “They see the helicopters outside and everything else. Those things aren’t normal.”
Said Holiday: “Obviously, it brought us together. We lost three players and we needed to grow as a team and that’s what we did.”
Alford said the suspended players would not travel with the team but could eventually resume participating in practices and other team activities.
If UCLA’s home opener was any indication, the Bruins could use the help, even on the practice court.
Friday vs. South Carolina State, 6 p.m., Pauley Pavilion, Pac-12 Networks —The Bulldogs (0-3) have dropped their first three games against brand-name opponents — Wisconsin, Boston College and Yale — by an average of 35 points.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch
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