feb 18, 2017 | BEN BOLCH | THE L.A. TIMES | ARTICLE LINK
Bryce Alford drove toward the basket, extending the ball just out of the reach of Elijah Stewart with his outstretched right arm and somehow flipping it in off the backboard while getting bumped. Alford snarled and coolly walked toward the sideline, where he high-fived a few fans before doing the same with his UCLA teammates.
A celebration nearly two years in the making for the Bruins began with about 61/2 minutes left in the game Saturday night. It continued when Lonzo Ball gathered what seemed like a wayward alley-oop pass from Alford with one hand and flushed it through the rim with both hands.
The decibel level inside Pauley Pavilion rose once more when Ball came up with a steal and dunk that allowed the Bruins to reach triple digits on the scoreboard with a little more than a minute left, triggering a profane anti-USC chant from UCLA students.
“It was a lot of fun,” Bruins forward TJ Leaf said. “The whole game was a ton of fun for all of us.”
The Bruins hit more highs over the game’s final 28 minutes than Keith Williams Jr. did in a rousing national anthem continually interrupted by cheers. Alford finished with 26 points and six assists, earning another high-five and a pat on the rump from Coach Steve Alford, after he checked out of the game. The elder Alford said he had seen that snarl from his son before during big moments going back to his days playing club basketball.
“It’s just what happens to my face,” Bryce Alford said. “I don’t know if one day it’s going to get stuck like that.”
The Bruins had their say on the court and in the interview room, bringing four players to take questions instead of the usual three. There were plenty of pleasurable topics to address after Leaf finished with 19 points and Thomas Welsh had 16 points and 16 rebounds to help UCLA (24-3 overall, 11-3 in the Pac-12) beat USC (21-6, 8-6) for the first time since the 2015 Pac-12 tournament and open a three-game lead over the Trojans in the conference standings.
UCLA might be playing its best basketball of the season after improving to 5-0 in February.
“Coach always says February sets up March,” said Ball, who had 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, “so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Frustrations were evident for USC in the final minutes when Coach Andy Enfield earned an oddly timed technical foul while the Bruins were in transition. USC forward Bennie Boatwright, who missed the first meeting while recovering from a knee injury, had 20 points and 10 rebounds, but his teammates weren’t nearly as crisp as they had been against the Bruins last month. The Trojans shot 34% from the field Saturday and were outrebounded 50-33.
“We beat them the first time by making it tough for them on offense; we challenged shots,” Enfield said. “And tonight they did make some tough ones, but our defense was not as exceptional as it was the first time we played them.”
In the minutes before the game, the video scoreboard featured several statistics highlighting UCLA’s once-in-a-generation offense. One showed that the Bruins were averaging 91.9 points per game, best in the nation.
For first 12 minutes, it didn’t seem like the Bruins would hit 60. Two teams that like to play at a harried pace appeared stuck in slow motion in the early going. Then it was as if UCLA hit the fast-forward button after USC led, 23-18, with eight minutes left in the first half. The Bruins went on a 17-3 run and scored 28 points in those eight minutes.
“Once they got going,” USC guard Jordan McLaughlin said, “it's kind of tough to stop.”
Just before halftime, Ball dribbled well beyond the three-point line, the seconds ticking off the clock, before Leaf came out to set a pick that forced Boatwright to switch onto Ball. It was the matchup Ball wanted, and he rose for a deep three-pointer that gave UCLA a 46-34 halftime lead and served as a good omen for the Bruins. They’d won all three previous games this season in which Ball had made a shot from long range in the seconds before halftime.
Saturday would be no different.