For better, and often worse, they are the three seconds that have come to define his college career.
They start with UCLA guard Prince Ali dribbling beyond the three-point arc and accelerating past his Kentucky defender, who slips on the Pauley Pavilion court. Ali moves aggressively into the paint before rising for a vicious one-handed dunk over a big man who dares to step into his path.
The sequence ends with one irrefutable truth on that night in December 2015: UCLA > top-ranked Kentucky.
The moment has been used as a reference point for everything the fifth-year senior has done since. Even the official UCLA Basketball Twitter account posted a video replay of the dunk Tuesday, exactly four years after the play became a “SportsCenter” highlight.
“Freshman Prince Ali provided the evening’s crown jewel,” read the message accompanying the video.
Ever since, as far as some Bruins fans are concerned, Ali has become the prince who lost his fresh appeal.
He sat out UCLA’s 31-win season in 2016-17 while rehabilitating a knee injury and returned the following season as a complementary player. Last season, he was often derided for poor defense and bad body language as part of a team that won one more game than it lost. And he’s never quite been able to recapture the lift that led to that unforgettable moment.
Predictably, the highlight video released Tuesday sparked a snarky response.
“And that was the beginning [of] the end of number 23,” one commenter wrote, referencing Ali’s jersey switch to No. 23 before his sophomore season. “Trade him.”
It was a sentiment that hasn’t been shared inside the Bruins’ basketball offices.
Trade him? Coach Mick Cronin has started Ali in all but one game this season while relying on his veteran savvy for a young team.
It hasn’t been perfect. Ali has shot 39%, worst among the regular starters, and made only 21.2% of his three-point attempts, worst among the starting guards. But he hasn’t given up on becoming the player his coach wants.
“He’s trying really hard,” Cronin said Wednesday, “but I don’t think he has any experience defensively — although he does like to steal the ball [and] that’s a good thing. So he has a nose for the ball. He has a tendency to lose his man, to lose sight of his man at times; he got backdoored the other night [against San Jose State] a couple of times, but I think he’s trying.
“His effort’s there, he’s trying; it’s just building solid habits is the issue.”
Ali is averaging a career-high 10.6 points and has tallied a team-leading 16 steals even while dealing with a nagging ankle injury that has forced him out of three games.
“I wouldn’t say I’m happy,” Ali said. “We have a lot of work to do.”
Ali said he hadn’t re-watched his famous dunk even though he was reminded of it Tuesday by a school spokesperson.
“I made a great play and people talk to me about it, so it’s a blessing,” Ali said, “but … it was four years ago so I’m not living in the past, I’m trying to live in the future. I mean, I live in the present and pray for the future.”
UCLA will play sub-.500 Denver on Sunday after playing sub-.500 San Jose State last weekend, but the Bruins’ pre-Christmas schedule next season won’t be so ho-ho-ho-hum.
As part of its move to a 20-game Pac-12 Conference schedule, UCLA will play at Oregon on Dec. 3, 2020, followed by a home game against California on Dec. 6. It will be the first time the Bruins have played conference games before Christmas since facing Washington and Washington State in December 2001.
The only conference opponents UCLA will not play twice next season are Stanford and Oregon State. Cronin said he was in favor of adding two Pac-12 games to the schedule given the difficulties in scheduling quality nonconference opponents.
“It’s really hard to get home-and-homes when we’re not part of a challenge with another conference,” Cronin said, “so 20 games was a logical move for the Pac-12.”