The steady play of freshman starters Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf has given UCLA basketball fans reason to be optimistic so far this season, but it was the leadership and production of senior guards Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton that set the table for a 99-77 victory over Portland on Thursday night in the first round of the Wooden Legacy at Cal State Fullerton.
Hamilton scored 16 points while dishing out six assists in 31 minutes and Alford added 13 points in a team-high 34 minutes for the 14th-ranked Bruins (5-0), who are off to their fastest start since winning their first eight games in 2013-14, their first season under Coach Steve Alford. Six players finished in double figures for UCLA, which tied a tournament record for points in a game and set one with 29 assists.
On Thanksgiving, a holiday that is all about giving, it was his team’s unselfishness that Steve Alford appreciated most.
“As a coach, any time you make 36 baskets and get assists on 29 of them, you’re happy with that,” said Alford, whose team’s wins have been by an average of almost 25 points per game. “These guys like to share the ball and they don’t care who gets the basket as long as we score. We can beat you inside or we can beat you outside.”
Ball finished with 18 points, including four three-pointers, and 11 assists. Leaf had 14 points, nine rebounds and four assists, and junior Thomas Welsh had 16 points and 10 rebounds for the Bruins, who were 14 for 29 (48.3%) from three-point range.
“It’s definitely exciting to play on a team like this,” Welsh said. “We’re getting to know each other better every game and these guards really know how to distribute the ball.”
There were six lead changes and two ties early as Portland (3-1) sought its third victory against a California team after wins last week over UC Riverside and San Jose State.
Aaron Holiday put the Bruins ahead to stay, 29-27, on a three-pointer with 7:48 left in the first half. He also punctuated the blowout with a breakaway dunk that gave UCLA its biggest lead, 96-65, with 4:30 left. Holiday finished with 14 points and five assists.
Welsh hit a fadeaway jumper with two seconds on the clock to give the Bruins a 45-37 halftime lead.
Ball and Hamilton made back-to-back three-pointers to open the second half and Ball swished another shot from beyond the arc to cap an 11-4 run that gave UCLA a 62-41 lead with 15:45 to play. Consecutive three-pointers by Holiday and Bryce Alford made it 80-51, prompting Pilots first-year Coach Terry Porter to call timeout.
Jazz Johnson scored 25 points, including four three-pointers, and D’Marques Tyson added 16 points, also with four three-pointers, for Portland. UCLA outscored the Pilots 28-8 in the paint.
UCLA advanced to play undefeated Nebraska in the semifinals tonight (tipoff at 9) at Titan Gym. The winner meets Texas A&M or Virginia Tech for the championship Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at Honda Center in Anaheim. The Bruins last played in the tournament in 2009 when it was known as the 76 Classic, losing to Portland, Butler and Long Beach State under former coach Ben Howland.