FULLERTON - UCLA took a record of 5-0 into its game against Nebraska on Friday in the Wooden Legacy Tournament. To Bruins coach Steve Alford, the Cornhuskers figured to be their most difficult test to date in this young season.
He said just that following Thursday’s victory over Portland.
Alford was spot on, as the Cornhuskers gave the 14th-ranked Bruins all they could handle before UCLA came away with an 82-71 victory before about 3,278 at Titan Gym.
UCLA (6-0) will now play Texas A&M for the tournament title on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at Honda Center. Texas A&M (4-1) defeated Virginia Tech 68-65.
UCLA led by 15 points at the outset of the second half, but Nebraska (4-1) was within 58-56 with 9:21 to play.
Bryce Alford led the Bruins with 18 points, including 10 big ones over the final 6:43; two were on a put-back in traffic, two more were on a tough drive to the basket.
“As a basketball player, those are the kind of moments that you live for,” Bryce Alford said. “That’s something I’ve always prided myself on is being a closer, being somebody who could make plays down the stretch, make smart plays.”
Isaac Hamilton scored 15 for the Bruins, freshman Lonzo Ball had 13 points and seven assists before he fouled out with 1:30 to play and freshman TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh each scored 12, with Welsh also grabbing 11 rebounds.
Coach Alford was stoked that his team was tested.
“We needed this,” he said. “We hadn’t had a game like that this year yet to where adversity hit us. We played awfully well in the first half, especially defensively, and I thought we got comfortable and we became a little satisfied having a pretty decent team.”
His team did pass the test, though.
“It was a great lesson for us because Nebraska is well-coached and they guard you and I just liked how we handled adversity,” Steve Alford said.
Cornhuskers coach Tim Miles praised what he believes is a talented UCLA squad.
“UCLA is an excellent team,” he said. “Coach Alford’s got a lot of weapons on that team, a lot of different guys that can hurt you.”
One of them is Ball, who wasn’t thrilled that he fouled out, but very pleased the way his team came through.
“I think I did all right, but obviously I fouled out of the game, which I don’t want to have happen,” he said. “But Bryce stepped up and the rest of the team, they had my back. That’s the joy of this team. Everybody plays for each other, not for themselves.”
Glynn Watson Jr. led the Cornhuskers with 27 points and Tai Webster scored 19.
UCLA shot 51.6 percent from the field. Nebraska shot 38.7 percent, 28.6 in the first half.
The Bruins got off to a quick start and led 6-0 thanks to a couple of 3-pointers by Leaf. But UCLA then went cold, making just 2 of 11 shots. It wasn’t a big issue because the Cornhuskers weren’t making anything, either.
Nebraska did take a lead of 10-9 on a 3-point basket by Anton Gill with 12:23 left in the half. Ball responded with a 3-pointer of his own and UCLA had the lead back at 12-10.
Up 16-13, the Bruins made it 18-13 when Thomas Welsh took a lob pass from Aaron Holiday and threw down a dunk that brought the pro-UCLA crowd to its feet. Bryce Alford then hit a 16-footer and the Bruins were ahead 20-13.
Nebraska stayed close and trailed just 22-19 with 5:34 left before the break. Then the Bruins embarked on a 9-0 run that was culminated by a 3-pointer by Hamilton for a 31-19 cushion.
The UCLA faithful was getting louder by the moment.
A basket by the Cornhuskers’ Webster pulled Nebraska within 31-21, but Ball responded with a 3-point basket that went through the net as he was hitting the floor with his backside for a 34-21 lead.
Welsh had the final word when he sank an 18-footer just before halftime, giving the Bruins a 38-25 margin heading into the locker room.