Saturday, January 7, 2017

UCLA almost takes it too easy in 81-71 victory over California

TJ Leaf goes Phi Slama Jamma on Cal (courtesy of UCLA Athletics)


Playtime was over. After the Snoop Dogg scoreboard video cameo, another insanely deep Lonzo Ball three-pointer before halftime that gave UCLA a 20-point  lead and a TJ Leaf dunk that instantaneously went viral on Twitter, the Bruins somehow still needed to win the game.
What had been a 24-point cushion over California was down to five with 43 seconds left after a series of defensive breakdowns and oddities on offense such as briefly trying to run plays through reserve forward Gyorgy Goloman.
“We thought it was going to be easy,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said, “and we shut it down in the second half.”
The fourth-ranked Bruins persevered for an 81-71 victory Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion only after the Golden Bears provided an opening in the final minute.
Cal waited until there was nine seconds left on the shot clock to foul Ball, who made both free throws with 22 seconds left in the game to extend UCLA’s lead to seven points. The tactic needlessly erased precious seconds.
“I thought they were going to foul right away,” Bruins shooting guard Bryce Alford acknowledged, “but they decided not to.”
The Golden Bears then missed two layups, UCLA’s Aaron Holiday grabbed the rebound and the Bruins (15-1 overall, 2-1 Pac-12 Conference) made enough free throws to hold on comfortably in their conference home opener.
Steve Alford was more pleased with the positives than he was dismayed with the letdowns after the Bruins were outscored, 47-37, in the second half. Bryce Alford made five of seven three-pointers on the way to 24 points against the Pac-12’s best defense and Leaf finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, nearly a push with Cal’s Ivan Rabb (17 points, 20 rebounds).
“Are there issues?” Steve Alford asked. “Yeah, but it’s the Pac-12 and a 10-point win. We’ve got to be real with it too. This was a really good win.”
The Bruins were especially good in the first half, when they held Cal (10-5, 1-2) to 24 points and were efficient on offense, shooting 51.5% amid zippy ball movement.
Leaf thrilled UCLA’s second home sold-out crowd of the season when he faked out Cal’s Roger Moute a Bidias, drove into the lane and ferociously dunked with one hand over Kingsley Okoroh while absorbing contact.
“Luckily, he missed a little bit,” Leaf said of Okoroh’s attempt to block the shot. “I thought maybe it should have been an and-one, but I mean it was a good dunk and it was a good play and I’m excited about it.”
“Who taught you that?” asked Bryce Alford, sitting next to Leaf in the postgame interview room.
The 6-foot-10 Leaf pointed at the 6-3 Alford, triggering laughter in the room.
Ball provided another highlight with his third long three-pointer in the final seconds before halftime this season after doing the same thing against Kentucky and Michigan.
“Coach puts the ball in my hands to make plays when there’s limited time,” Ball said, “and when they sag I just shoot it and I’m happy it goes in.”

The pace that had heavily favored UCLA in the first half slowed to a crawl midway through the second half as Cal commenced its run. Steve Alford said he wanted Ball to talk more on the court than he did before the final minutes, when the freshman guard said he pulled his teammates together and told them they needed to tighten their defense.
“I told ‘Zo, I said, ‘We’ve empowered you and you have got to get everybody in and chew them,’” Alford said. “It can’t just be me because my voice just becomes that same voice all the time.”
Ball isn’t the talkative type, but he has been trying to complement his deft passing skills with his voice.
“I think it’s been getting better every game,” said Ball, who finished with 14 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals to go with only two turnovers. “Tonight, I felt I should have talked a little bit earlier, but fortunately we pulled it out.”

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