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UCLA is coasting rather than rolling into Pac-12 play as it slogs past McNeese State

UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton drives the ball during the second half of a game on Dec. 15.

UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton drives the ball during the second half of a game on Dec. 15.

(Kelvin Kuo / AP)

After a punishing nonconference schedule, UCLA can use some time off. Apparently, the Bruins decided to get an early start on some rest during much of Tuesday’s game against McNeese State.

In the end, UCLA pulled out a 67-53 win at Pauley Pavilion. If the Bruins did not end a promising nonconference season emphatically, at least they ended it without disaster.

“Our guys need a break,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “Coaches need a break. This has been a grind. This has been a hard 13 games.”

UCLA has shown the ability to compete against anyone in the Pac-12. Its biggest question may be its consistency in a deep conference with few easy games.

The Bruins have played with intensity against teams like Kentucky and Gonzaga. At other times, that focus has lapsed. The nonconference season began with a loss with a squandered lead against a surprisingly talented Monmouth team, and ended with an uncomfortable win against overmatched McNeese State.

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Coming into the game, the Cowboys were ranked 312th in the Ratings Percentage Index, out of 351 Division I teams. Their two wins were against NAIA teams, Dillard and LSU Alexandria.

But UCLA appeared uninterested for large swaths of the game. The Bruins scored one basket over the final six minutes of the first half. At the break, they led by just three, despite McNeese State’s having shot 27.8% from the field.

“Not one of those games that had a great flow to it,” Alford said.

To this point, UCLA has had little trouble scoring but has been inconsistent defensively. Early on, UCLA again failed to staunch the flow of three-pointers against a smaller opponent. McNeese State made six of 14 from long range in the first half.

But then the Bruins extended the defense, and after a quick McNeese State three-pointer tied the score to begin the second half, UCLA went on a 13-2 run. Neither team sustained much offense in the rest of a sleepy second half. The Cowboys made one three-pointer over the last 19 minutes.

“We took a huge step defensively tonight,” center Thomas Welsh said. “I know we can score. If we can just play defense and keep it under 65 every game, I think we’ll put ourselves in a good position.”

Again, Isaac Hamilton led the team in scoring, with 18 points, and added 11 rebounds. Since an eight-turnover performance against Nevada Las Vegas, Hamilton has been reliable, and often dynamic. He has averaged 18.6 points in that nine-game span. In his last five games, he has turned the ball over no more than twice.

He has now gone five games with at least eight field goals, becoming the first UCLA player to do so since Tracy Murray in 1991.

“I think he’s just relaxing,” Alford said. “He’s much more aggressive. He’s very confident right now because he’s making shots.”

Welsh had 16 points and 14 rebounds.

Guard Prince Ali sat out for the third straight game since suffering a bruised knee against Gonzaga. Alford said Ali will be back for Pac-12 play. Forward Gyorgy Goloman, who missed the entire nonconference season due to a stress fracture, is expected back for the first or second week of conference play, Alford said.

zach.helfand@latimes.com


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