After a terrible game the night before, Isaac Hamilton was in the process of regrouping when Tyus Edney sidled up to him at the pregame meal Friday.
Edney, UCLA’s director of basketball operations, had played in the NBA, where, he counseled Hamilton, a short memory is essential. Hamilton had gone scoreless on six shots against North Carolina with seven turnovers Thursday. That’s over now, Edney told him.
“You’ve just got to let it go,” Hamilton said.
The crowd cleared out before UCLA’s bounce-back 88-76 win over Alabama Birmingham on Friday night, so few witnessed Hamilton’s redemption. This was the last game of the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament — the leftovers.
UCLA (5-2) had played itself into this position. After a 22-point loss to North Carolina on Thursday, UCLA Coach Steve Alford called this last-place consolation match a gut-check game.
“They knew the urgency of getting this one,” Alford said.
In a more boisterous environment, the Bruins had wilted under North Carolina’s pressure defense.
Alabama Birmingham Coach Jerod Haase spent 13 years as an assistant coach for Roy Williams, the North Carolina coach. The Blazers, who led late in a loss to Florida on Thursday, run a similar system. Alford warned the team they would see the same pressure defense.
The result couldn’t have been more different.
The turnovers disappeared in the first half before a sloppier second half. The bench played meaningful minutes. Even the free throws improved. The 22nd-ranked Bruins made 27 of 36 at the line.
The difference was drastic for Hamilton. He drained his first four baskets, and his effort put the Bruins up big early. He finished with 21 points and three turnovers, his best game of the season.
UCLA extended the lead with a balanced scoring attack. Five players finished in double-digits, including, for the first time, Thomas Welsh, who had 12 points in 23 minutes. It was enough to weather a late Blazers run.
“I thought this was a breakout tournament for Thomas,” Alford said.
With Welsh’s improvement, Alford said a big lineup is now possible, with Welsh, Tony Parker and Kevon Looney — who had 13 points and eight rebounds against the Blazers.
Alford again used Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman for a change of pace. He singled out the two as the only positives in Thursday’s loss.
On Friday, the rest of the team played with intensity. In the first half, Parker stripped a ball loose right by UCLA bench. His teammates leaped. Wanaah Bail dived over a courtside table to save a ball. Hamilton hustled to force a turnover.
When favored this season, UCLA has dominated. When the underdog, the Bruins haven’t just lost, they’ve looked lost too.
“It was a learning process,” Norman Powell said.
A win over UAB (2-5) won’t help their tournament resume. The Bruins missed their first chances at a high-profile win. But they will have more shots with looming games against Gonzaga and Kentucky before conference play.
Very likely, UCLA will be the underdog in those games. Before then, it will have to figure out a way not to play like it.