For more than a few moments, they looked shaky, but UCLA did what it’s done all season to get past Kent State and Cincinnati:
Score a lot in a little bit of time.
After struggling to defend on Friday and to score on Sunday, UCLA pulled away from both Kent State and Cincinnati late with scintillating offense to book a ticket to Memphis for the Sweet 16.
It sets up a mouth-watering rematch with Kentucky this Friday night, with the winner facing off against either North Carolina or Butler for a shot at the South Regional berth in the Final Four on Sunday.
On Friday, Kent State gave UCLA all it could handle, and for over half of the game, the Bruins struggled to cope.
UCLA jumped out to a quick 16-2 lead after 6 minutes, making 6 of its first 8 shots and overwhelming the Golden Flashes out of the traps. It looked like the MAC outfit would be quickly dispatched, as its lack of size and short bench looked to be fatal flaws against the Bruins.
That proved short-sighted. Though the Golden Flashes shot just 15-40 in the first half, they collected a whopping 10 offensive rebounds to go into halftime down by just 8 at 47-39. Jimmy Hall, tougher than the stuff they make the black box out of, had 9 first-half rebounds and bullied both Thomas Welsh and TJ Leaf down low despite his height disadvantage.
Behind his crafty low-block game and Jaylin Walker and Kevin Zabo making threes, Kent State hung around and made up for their defense being shredded by crashing the boards and outworking the bigger Bruins to every loose ball.
The UCLA offense was not the worry for the first 20 minutes. TJ Leaf scored an easy 16 points on 6 made baskets and had his way with anyone Kent State threw at him. Lonzo Ball made all 4 of his shot attempts, and Aaron Holiday collected 4 assists off the bench as the Bruins shot 20-33 from the field in the first half.
The defense was concerning, however, and the second half started out worryingly. The Golden Flashes continued to scrap and fight and got as close as 4, trailing just 54-50 four minutes into the second half. Coupled with the injury to Lonzo Ball after he fell hard on his hip going for a rebound, the Bruins looked to be nearing the danger zone.
Scary fall for Lonzo Ball at the end of the half. Got up and was able to shoot the free throws, but limping to locker room at the half. pic.twitter.com/jMIVGiRBKU— Derrek Li (@DerrekLi) March 18, 2017
But then UCLA did what it does best: score a lot, and score FAST.
UCLA ripped off a string of 11 straight made baskets from 11 minutes left to 1:30 left in the second half to pull away from the Golden Flashes to win 97-80.
Kent State actually shot over 51% in the second half, including its own string of 5 consecutive makes at one point. Three Golden Flashes - Kevin Zabo, Jaylin Walker and Jimmy Hall - all scored in double digits.
But it was no match against the Bruins. Aaron Holiday was magnificent, recording 7 second half assists and ending with his first career double-double with 15 points and 11 assists in just 29 minutes.
Thomas Welsh dropped 12 of his 16 points in the second half, and 5 Bruins - Leaf, Welsh, Holiday, Ball and Isaac Hamilton - scored in double figures. UCLA shot an absurd 63% overall and an even 50% (7-14) from 3.
It was an impressive second half performance pocked by times of lackadaisical play that let an inferior team hang around. Against Cincinnati, that could not happen.
The Bearcats, winners of 30 games, came into Sunday as a bad match up on paper for UCLA. They were long, athletic and nasty whose tough defense could cause the Bruins fits.
Mick Cronin’s team came into Sunday ranked in the top 10 nationally in both points allowed (8th at 61.5 per game) and field goal percentage defense (39%, good for 9th).
But this team was different from previous editions in that it could score to match the defense. The Bearcats were efficient, ranking in the top 25 in points per 100 possessions even while they played at one of the slowest tempos in the country.
So it was unsurprising to see a rock fight break out in the first half on Sunday. Cincinnati bodied up UCLA and bullied them on both ends. TJ Leaf came out tentative, missing his first 5 shots and picking up 2 bad fouls. No other Bruin played especially well on offense, as the team shot just 12-32 from the field and a woeful 29% from 3.
The Bearcats, meanwhile, shot an even 50% from the field and made 4-6 triples and out-rebounded UCLA 19-12. The 30 points UCLA scored in the first half were its lowest output in a half all year. UCLA only went into halftime down 3 by way of forcing 8 Cincinnati turnovers.
It all changed in the second half.
UCLA flew out of the blocks, getting Bryce Alford a clean look from 3 and Leaf his first of 5 made field goals in the first two possessions. After Cincinnati took a 47-46 lead with 14 minutes to go, they would never lead again, as the Bruins scored on 9 of its next 12 possessions to build a 67-57 lead with 7 minutes to go.
UCLA scored as many points in the front half of the second half (30) as it did in the entire first half. The Bruins’ 49 second half points were almost as many points as the 57 points Cincinnati typically gave up over the entire AAC conference season.
The Bruins shot 19-30 and made 7 triples in the second half. Lonzo Ball nearly had a second half double-double, recording 11 points and 9 assists, Leaf made all 5 field goals after a scoreless first half, and UCLA turned in an offensive performance worthy of a national champion to cap off a 79-67 victory.
Tale of 2 halves. TJ Leaf certainly brought it in the second half. pic.twitter.com/53DZi9R2IN— Derrek Li (@DerrekLi) March 20, 2017
Oh, and Thomas Welsh DID THIS.
YOU WILL NOT STOP BIG TOM pic.twitter.com/q7Vvx9tQEb— The Den (@uclatheden) March 20, 2017
Kentucky is up next for the Bruins on Friday night in Memphis.
A rematch of the 97-92 thriller won by UCLA in December in Lexington is a game that could take place two rounds later. It’s a shame that one of these teams will go home so early.
UCLA and Kentucky are vastly different from when they met in December. The Wildcats stormed through the SEC with improved defense, and the Bruins found semblances of its own defense for stretches over Pac-12 play.
At all times, there will be at least 3 high-level NBA talents on the floor. From Lonzo Ball to Malik Monk to De’Aaron Fox to TJ Leaf, it is sure to be a heavyweight showdown.
A collision between two of college basketball bluest blue bloods is what March Madness is all about.