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Dynamic freshman duo again carry the Bruins to victory

Dynamic freshman duo again carry the Bruins to victory
UCLA guard Lonzo Ball scores as he's fouled by Kent State forward Kevin Zabo during the first half Friday night. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Lurking underneath all the talk of UCLA's teamwork and depth this season was a stark, tandem truth that nobody could deny.

That reality surfaced Friday night at Golden 1 Center in ways that caused Kent State to stand and stare dizzily as if suffering from severe blue-and-golden flashes.

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UCLA is about Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf.

Duh, right? Well, over the course of the previous 33 games, that fact has sometimes been lost amid oohing over the points, aahing over the improved defense, and the general buzz over the return of Bruin greatness to the college landscape.

Don't kid yourself. Don't forget how this was started, and how it will undoubtedly end, however it ends. UCLA was pulled into the NCAA tournament by its two gifted freshmen and it will go only as far in this tournament as the two 19-year-olds will take them, all plainly evident in their occasionally shaky 97-80 opening-round victory over Kent State.

At various times, various Bruins seemed rattled by this initial step into the madness. Not Ball. Not Leaf. Playing with the intensity of two guys beginning their last run as brief Bruins — both will surely go to the NBA next season as one-and-dones — they made certain that an occasional Kent rally didn't turn into a full-blown Princeton.

Next up, sixth-seeded Cincinnati on Sunday evening here in the second round. The Bearcats are good, but they don't have Ball, and they don't have Leaf, and they probably don't have a great chance.

"You've got two teams that are used to winning all year long, so obviously something has to give on Sunday," said Alford.

Here's guessing Ball and Leaf will not be among those who "give."

On Friday, Ball had a flying dunk, a couple of soaring three-pointers, a double-pump layup, and just enough where-did-that-come-from passes that he set the UCLA single-season assists record with his three assists.

"You've got to come out and play like it's your last game," Ball said.

Leaf, meanwhile, just scored and scored and scored, leading the Bruins with 23 points from all areas of the floor, most impressively dunks that were followed by roars.

"Each game could be your last, so we've got to leave it all out there," said Leaf.

The did it not only with a basketball, but bandages and bruises. Ball is playing with tape on his strained left thumb, and took a bad spill during the game that caused a bruised hip. Leaf missed time at the end of the regular season because of a sprained left ankle.

Yet there they were, carrying the Bruins to an early 16-2 lead, staving off the pesky Golden Flashes when they cut the margin to four points early in the second half, and then showing up afterward in a spot that seems built for them.

It is an NCAA tournament tradition that your best players take the stage for the postgame news conference, and, sure enough, Coach Steve Alford was joined by Ball and Leaf, and it wasn't a coincidence.

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"We were sitting here 15-17 last year and now we're 30-4," said Alford. "These two guys had a lot to do with it."

Leaf is a coach's son — his father, Brad, was his high school coach — so his coolness under pressure is understandable. Far more amazing is the consistent calm deportment of Ball, whose off-court life has recently been a public whirlwind filled with controversy and worry.

Ball has spent all season dealing with the constant public chatter from his father, LaVar, who in recent days has gone from promoting his children to promoting himself with outlandish statements that have made his son a target for jeers.

"He's been like that my whole life, so it's nothing new to me," said Lonzo Ball to the media here Thursday. "You guys just got a camera in front of his face now so you're all seeing it for the first time."

Then, before Friday's game, a story appeared on the website "Armchair All-Americans" that claimed Tina Ball, Lonzo's mother, suffered a stroke on Feb. 21. Until the publication, it was a well-known secret that the family had neither confirmed nor denied.

"I got no comment on that, man," Ball said when asked about the report. "It's a family thing."

When asked Friday about Ball's handling of all this pressure, Alford shook his head.

"I'm proud of him," Alford said. "Obviously there is a lot of pressure on him. He's got a huge following, so to perform at a high level all the time, that's not easy."

Echoing the motto espoused by LaVar, Alford added, "That's what he's built for. He's built for pressure. He's built to excel in the toughest environments and the toughest opportunities. He's done that time and again."

He does it not with sheer numbers, but with constant inspiration, directing the Bruins all over the court in two hours of unselfish leadership.

"He understands how to orchestrate our team," said Alford.

Ball often waves the baton toward Leaf, who made Friday's outcome official with a thunderous dunk to give the Bruins a 17-point lead with 5:20 remaining.

"I think for two freshmen these guys have been built this way," said Alford. "They get it. They understand it. They played awfully well tonight, and we're going to need 'em to play well on Sunday."

And the next game. And the next game. And the next game….

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

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