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UCLA is good enough against Western Michigan to keep its perfect start

As UCLA piled up win after win in the season’s early going, players and coaches sounded the same refrain: The Bruins wanted to elevate themselves from a good team to a great one.

They weren’t even passable for stretches Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion. There were bad passes, missed shot after missed shot and a handful of lengthy lulls in the second half.

Then Western Michigan learned what so many other teams have already painfully absorbed over the last six weeks. Even when UCLA isn’t at its best, it’s usually capable enough.

The second-ranked Bruins persevered for a 82-68 victory over the Broncos, prevailing after a late flurry of steals and one memorable play by guard Aaron Holiday.

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The Broncos were within eight points when Holiday drove past two defenders for a one-handed dunk with a little more than four minutes to go, enlivening a crowd of 10,695 that had groaned on several earlier Bruins mishaps.

“I’m always in attack mode,” Holiday said, “so I made a move, saw a lane open and just went to finish.”

UCLA guard Isaac Hamilton then generated two of his team’s three steals over the final 3 minutes 45 seconds, following one with an alley-oop pass to Lonzo Ball for a dunk. The Bruins held on in large part by forcing 18 turnovers and blocking nine shots.

“We met our defensive efficiency tonight without getting our offensive efficiency,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said, “which might have been the first time all year.”

Bryce Alford finished with 22 points and Holiday had 16 points and seven assists for the Bruins, who withstood 10-0 and 8-0 runs by the Broncos in the second half and made only six of 22 three-pointers (27.3%) in the game.

“That’s what we’ve been doing all year,” Bryce Alford said. “We’ve been finding a way whether we play well or not.”

UCLA (13-0) finished unbeaten in nonconference play for the first time since the 1994-95 season and extended its best start since the 2006-07 team won its first 14 games. The Bruins can match that record with a victory in their Pac-12 Conference opener next Wednesday at Oregon.

“Any time you do something that hasn’t been done for a while at a university like this with a basketball program like this,” Bryce Alford said, “it’s very special and we’re going to cherish it.”

Bruins power forward TJ Leaf, fresh off his second Pac-12 player of the week award, had 14 points and eight rebounds and Ball did a little bit of everything with seven points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocks.

UCLA center Thomas Welsh missed a fourth consecutive game because of a bruised right knee.

UCLA had to dig itself out from a sloppy start, committing turnovers on its first two possessions and falling behind by six points in the opening minutes. The Bruins closed the first half on a 28-12 run that included Hamilton sidestepping a defender for a layup in transition and a couple of tip-ins from Ike Anigbogu.

Guard Thomas Wilder finished with 22 points for the Western Michigan (3-8), which had challenged top-ranked Villanova and Washington earlier this season before pushing the Bruins. It was almost a happy homecoming for Larry Farmer, the Broncos assistant coach who spent 15 years as a player and coach at UCLA and was acknowledged on the scoreboard in the first half.

The Bruins will now take a 31/2-day break, reconvening for practice on Christmas night. “It’s great to have a break and get away for a little bit,” Holiday said, “and come back strong for Pac-12 play.”

UCLA next

Wednesday vs. Oregon, 6 p.m., Matthew Knight Arena, ESPN2 — The No.20 Ducks (11-2), picked by the media to win the Pac-12 Conference title, have won nine in a row since a 2-2 start.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch


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