There had not been much to celebrate recently for Prince Ali. The UCLA sophomore guard went scoreless against USC and had been held to single digits in four of his last five games before Thursday night.
So when Ali took an outlet pass from Aaron Holiday and went in for a layup while being fouled late in the second half, he let out what might have felt like a few weeks’ worth of frustration.
Ali flexed both of his arms and gently rolled his head before chest-bumping Holiday after a pivotal play during the Bruins’ 75-68 victory over Oregon State at Pauley Pavilion.
“It felt great,” Ali said simply.
Ali’s basket and subsequent free throw gave UCLA a 70-60 lead, a double-digit cushion the Bruins would need amid some epic struggles at the free throw line.
UCLA made only 11 of 24 free throws (45.8%) in the second half, leading to some restlessness among fans. After Kris Wilkes made the first of two free throws with several minutes left, a fan facetiously yelled “Two in a row!”
As if on cue, Wilkes missed his next attempt.
“It’s never easy to watch,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said of the repeated misses, “because it knocks you out of rhythm.”
UCLA made 23 of 37 free throws (62.2%) and four of 21 three-pointers (19.0%) overall but managed to prevail for its fifth victory in its last six games largely because it improved its interior play.
UCLA center Thomas Welsh, playing his first game without a protective mask since early January, grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds to go with his 15 points on seven-for-12 shooting. Welsh snagged nine offensive rebounds, helping the Bruins reverse their fortunes in that department after being manhandled by the Beavers last month. UCLA collected 18 offensive rebounds Thursday to Oregon State’s six.
“Coach was just preaching to us all week about being as good as we could on the glass,” Welsh said, “and I think we did a pretty good job.”
The triumph helped the Bruins (18-8 overall, 9-5 Pac-12 Conference) maintain a tie with USC for second place in the conference standings, two games behind first-place Arizona.
Holiday also logged a double-double with 17 points and 10 assists, and Ali added 11 points despite missing five of eight free throws.
It was a victory that did not come without complications.
Oregon State’s Stephen Thompson Jr. completed a 10-0 run for his team that nudged the Beavers ahead, 49-48, when he made two free throws with 14:58 left. But Welsh sparked a 6-0 run for UCLA with a layup and a jumper, and the Bruins never trailed again. Forward Alfred Hollins scored 24 points for the Beavers (13-12, 5-8), who dropped to 0-7 on the road this season.
UCLA also won in part by adjusting the tempo to its liking.
When Holiday flipped an alley-oop lob to Chris Smith for a dunk in transition midway through the first half, it served as more than a crowd-pleasing play for UCLA. It gave the Bruins 27 points, one more than they had scored in the entire first half against Oregon State when the teams met last month.
UCLA’s push-the-pace plan helped the Bruins build leads as large as 13 points in the first half, but they held only a 42-36 advantage at halftime after some careless possessions. UCLA guard Jaylen Hands tried to get fancy on a lob that went for a turnover and hoisted a handful of difficult three-pointers that were off the mark.
“I told them in the timeout we’re not into degree of difficulty,” Alford said. “It’s not gymnastics; we don’t get more points for style. Be simple. Be disciplined in what you’re doing and make the simple play, and I thought in the second half we did that.”
Saturday vs. Oregon, 7:15 p.m., Pauley Pavilion, ESPN — The Bruins nearly came all the way back from an 18-point second-half deficit the last time these teams met before Welsh missed a three-pointer that would have tied the score with 46 seconds left during the Ducks’ 94-91 triumph last month in Eugene.