dec 21, 2016 | clay fowler |inland valley daily bulletin | ARTICLE LINK
LOS ANGELES — UCLA coach Steve Alford likes to divide basketball season into three segments.
At the end of “season one” the Bruins are perfect.
No. 2 UCLA’s 82-68 win over Western Michigan Wednesday night moved it to 13-0, one win shy of matching the 2006-07 team’s 14-0 mark to start a season that ended in the Final Four. Among other good company, this is the first UCLA team to go undefeated in non-conference play since 1995, the last time UCLA won a national championship.
UCLA begins the second segment of its season when it opens Pac-12 play on Dec. 28 at Oregon, the defending conference champion.
“With the talent we know we have and the coaching we have, we all envisioned it like this,” Freshman TJ Leaf said. “Just being able to make that a reality so far has been great and it’s been a ton of fun, but we’re definitely not done yet. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Sophomore Aaron Holiday came off the bench to score 16 points and collect seven assists and Bryce Alford scored a team-high 22 points. Both were integral in a 13-3 run inside the last five minutes.
UCLA led by 12 at halftime, but Western Michigan didn’t go quietly, cutting the lead to eight points with 4:47 to play.
As he did at the end of the first half, Holiday sparked a decisive run, this time with a one-handed dunk with 4:14 to play. A little more than three minutes later, UCLA’s lead had ballooned to 18.
“I’m always in attack mode,” Holiday said. “This year I have a lot more confidence than I did last year and I put a lot of work in this summer and I’m glad it’s finally starting to show.”
UCLA shot 27 percent from the 3-point line, but it could be viewed as a testament that it found a way to win handily despite its worst 3-point shooting performance of the season.
Alford made 4 of 11 attempts from beyond the arc, but UCLA finished just 6 of 22, including 1 of 8 on 3-pointers in the second half.
“We’ve proven over time that we’re a very good shooting basketball team, so anytime we have a lapse in that area it’s kind of a red flag,” Alford said. “Credit to them. They did a good job on defense making it tough on us. They pressured us, but we have confidence we’re going to make shots.”
The freshman duo of Leaf and Lonzo Ball struggled by their high standards, but Leaf still finished with 14 points and eight rebounds and Ball had seven points, five rebounds and four assists.
Senor Isaac Hamilton played an important role matching Western Michigan’s grit, finishing with 11 points, eight rebounds and five assists in what began as a sloppy game.
UCLA committed eight of its 15 turnovers in the first 12 minutes and found itself tied at 21 with 7:50 to play in the first half, leaving the second-highest scoring team in the country well off the pace of its 96.9-point average.
The Bruins promptly reeled off a 7-0 run in less than a minute, but didn’t gain a double-digit lead until an 11-4 run to end the first half fueled by seven points from Holiday.
Western Michigan’s Thomas Wilder took a steal the length of the court and made a tough bank shot over Leaf to whittle the Bruins’ 12-point halftime lead to four less than two minutes into the second half.
UCLA struggled to guard the junior, who scored 20 points 23 minutes into the game, but held Wilder to just two points over the game’s final 17 minutes.
UCLA has improved defensively over its first 13 games of the season. Even when its prolific offense has momentarily subsided, it has found a way to win each game thus far.
But the first segment of the season is the only one that doesn’t reward an undefeated record with a championship.
“It’s been draining getting to this point,” Steve Alford said. “But it’s been fun.”