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Column: UCLA finds its intensity against Oregon in crazy second half

UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball is averaging 14.7 points per game.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

On a night when UCLA honored legendary announcer Dick Enberg, the accompanying basketball game could be appropriately described in two words.

Oh. My.

The trademark phrase printed on student T-shirts and uttered by Enberg at halftime perfectly fit everything else that happened around it.

Oh my, the Bruins finally played up to their Final Four hype.

Oh my, Lonzo Ball is unreal.

Oh my, their defense can actually be, like, good!

On a night when the Bruins fell behind by 19 points in a first half that felt like a slowly deflating balloon, they tightened and toughened and came back to beat fifth-ranked Oregon, 82-79, in what became a roaring, rollicking Pauley Pavilion.

“Wow,” said Coach Steve Alford afterward, and that word works too.

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The game was so ugly, during a timeout three minutes into the second half with the Bruins trailing by 14, a UCLA cheerleader fell hard on the gym floor from the heights of a towering routine … then hit the floor again when the man carrying her off the court slipped and fell.

Yet from that moment, with the emergence of long-missing intensity on defense and a return of their breathtaking offensive teamwork, they outscored the Ducks, 37-20, with a flourish that ended in a flush.

With the Bruins leading by three with 1:10 left, Ball obliterated Dylan Ennis on a one-on-one drive for a layup.

Then, with the Bruins leading by two with 32 seconds left, Ball stepped back and burned Ennis on a 30-foot three pointer that he celebrated with three strong thrusting motions with his right wrist.

It seriously looked like he was flushing something, maybe the nagging questions that even with 22 wins in 25 games, UCLA is not NCAA tournament tough.

Entering this game, despite their reputation as the most entertaining team in America, the 10th-ranked Bruins were quickly gaining another reputation as the most underachieving team in America.

When the Pac-12 Conference schedule got tough, they had wilted, losing at Oregon, losing at USC, and losing at home to Arizona. With the Ducks on their home court in front of a full house, this was a game they needed to win to prove, even to themselves perhaps, that they can win more than two games in March.

Mission understood. Message delivered.

“We find a way to get back in it and win it,” said Alford, tightening his jaw in admiration.

Apparently their cause was helped by a mid-game speech by Alford in which the coach went “crazy” according to guard Aaron Holiday. Alford has won an NCAA title as a player, he understands what is required, and on this night, he knew the Bruins had to find it.

“It helps a lot, we know March is going to be tough, coach talks about it all the time,” acknowledged Ball, who scored 15 points, or 77 fewer than his little brother LaMelo earlier this week, but oh well.

“February sets up March,” Ball added. “This is a perfect game for it.”

It was a perfect ending for this kind of game, too, and not just the part where the fans filled the place with the loudest roars in Alford’s four years here.

The Ducks, who had handed the Bruins their first loss six weeks ago with a last-second trey by Dillon Brooks, were the ones walking dazed off the court this time.

“It seemed like we were really gassed out there,” said Oregon Coach Dana Altman. “It’s like at the 10-minute mark, we were stuck in the mud.”

As for UCLA, in an act of grit that symbolized the entire night, that fallen cheerleader actually returned and finished the game.

“We got back in because of our defense,” said Alford. “For the first time all year I can say it really is our defense.”

Led by Ball’s second-half individual effort on Brooks, the Bruins held the Ducks to 33% shooting in the final 20 minutes while outrebounding them by eight. There were blocks from Ike Anigbogu, hands from Holiday, swats from TJ TLeaf.

“We were attack mode, and they were shrinking,” said Holiday.

Another way to describe their continued defensive stops is to list the verbs I wrote on this laptop from press row with each Oregon possession. Harried. Swarmed. Hassled. Hurried. Rkgkdkdkd. That last garble was pounded out in the excitement over a hustling sequence that led to Holiday’s three-pointer that gave the Bruins their first lead with 4:01 remaining. The laptop just wouldn’t stay still.

“It was crazy,” said Holiday. “It was rockin’.”

On a night when UCLA basketball experienced a growth spurt toward the shining heights that many think it can eventually reach, yeah, those two words work too.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Get more of Bill Plaschke’s work and follow him on Twitter @BillPlaschke


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