For the first time this season, the game was still in doubt midway through the second half when Norman Powell caught a pass in the corner. The UCLA men’s basketball team had held off Long Beach State but hadn’t yet pulled away to its eventual 77-63 win. Powell eyed a three.
In Powell’s four-year self-improvement project, jump shooting is the final piece, and now the defender bit.
Powell faked, drove along the baseline and dunked with one hand. He scowled and flexed before running back down the court.
Long Beach posed the Bruins’ toughest challenge before they head to the Bahamas to take on Oklahoma to open the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. On Sunday, the 49ers choked off UCLA’s potent transition, stymied the Bruins’ shooting with a zone and held Kevon Looney in check.
But every time Long Beach (2-3) drew close, UCLA (4-0) rode Powell.
“We know that we can count on him to get a basket,” Looney said. “He makes plays.”
Powell, who had long played a secondary role, was finally expected to be the go-to option for the young UCLA team this season. Yet in the early going, the scoring remained evenly distributed. Before Sunday’s game, Bryce Alford led the team in points. Powell averaged 20 points but hadn’t taken over a game.
On Sunday, Powell scored 24 points on eight-for-14 shooting. He played all but three minutes. His re-engineered shot yielded four three-pointers in seven attempts — he’s now shooting 55% from three-point range this season.
“I’m really confident with the way I’m shooting the ball,” Powell said.
The Bruins had to scramble out of a deficit early. They didn’t trail by much — Long Beach led by six midway through the first half — but they answered swiftly. They scored 15 points in a row and wouldn’t trail for the rest of the game.
Yet the 49ers mounted runs to stay in the game. Early on, they exploited UCLA’s defense for open three-point looks. In the second half, they switched to a 2-3 zone that cooled UCLA’s shooting. The Bruins’ 40% shooting was their worst effort of the season.
Mike Caffey, Long Beach’s leading scorer, was scoreless in the first half but ripped off nine points to start the second half and finished with 19. UCLA called a timeout to regroup.
“That’s the poorest we’ve been coming out of halftime,” Coach Steve Alford said. “And we needed this.”
The break worked. Alford and Powell hit threes to quash the run.
Powell’s one-handed dunk later in the half put UCLA ahead by eight, but the 49ers countered again. A Powell jumper with 3:41 remaining put the game away for good.
UCLA weathered its cold shooting by taking care of the ball. They won the turnover battle by 15.
For the third time in four games, all five UCLA starters scored in double digits.
Looney, who had what Steve Alford described as “maybe an off night,” still finished with a double-double, his third in four games. No other UCLA freshman has ever matched that.
Before the game, Steve Alford got a gift from Long Beach Coach Dan Monson, a friend from their time coaching in the Big Ten. Alford turned 50 on Sunday.
As UCLA fans serenaded Alford, Monson handed him the gift: a cane. At the end, he attached a bow.
After the game, UCLA celebrated with cake.
“He told us we better have won that game,” Bryce Alford said.