|UCLA Bruins guard Lonzo Ball slaps hands as he walks to the locker room after UCLA beat Cincinnati 79-67 in a second-round game of the men’s NCAA college basketball tournament in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, March 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)|
mar 19, 2017 | mark Whicker | THE L.A. daily newS | ARTICLE LINK
SACRAMENTO >> The first half belonged in a septic tank. The second half belonged in a Dom Perignon bottle.
A few more like that, and champagne will flow.
Lonzo Ball and UCLA have played classic halves this season. What they did to Cincinnati in the second round of the NCAA tournament might have been their magnum opus.
They shot 19 for 30 with 14 assists and two turnovers. They wound up shooting 50 percent for the game after they missed 19 of their first 26 shots
. At intermission they had no fast-break points and Ball had no assists.
After intermission they had nine and he had nine.
“They started playing downhill,” said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin after UCLA had beaten both his team and his game plan, 79-67.
The slope now propels UCLA to Memphis on Friday for what you might call the Semifinal Four.
They will play Kentucky, and North Carolina will play Butler. That means that all four top seeds got through the first weekend and into the South Regional.
There is a lot of history here, but remember that Butler has reached the championship game twice in this decade, just as Kentucky has. North Carolina has done that once, and UCLA hasn’t done it since 2006. The Bruins are the ones who are new and different. They were fresh and princely on Sunday.
The game exploded when Cincinnati, so careful and deliberate in the first half as it built a 33-30 lead, took its eyes off the road for just a couple of moments.
The Bearcats led 47-46 when Kevin Johnson (no relation to the former Sacramento mayor and distinguished NBA guard who helped get this arena built) found himself alone in the corner, just him and the ball and his dreams.
He fired and missed. On the other end, Ball corkscrewed a three that went in.
Cincinnati came down again and Jarron Cumberland missed another outside shot. Ball came down and hit another 3.
As Bruins fans began to recognize the theme, Cumberland missed another shot. This time Bryce Alford sank the 3.
A one point lead became an eight-point deficit in 61 seconds.
“They did a great job of playing their game,” Aaron Holiday said. “In the second half I felt like they started trying to play at our pace. Some teams can do that. Some can’t.”
The Bearcats ranked 327nd out of 351 division teams in tempo, according to Kenpom.com, and they thrived when they could bleed the shot clock. But then you don’t expect T.J. Leaf to go 0 for 5 in a half, along with all the other statistical aberrations.
“A couple of times we panicked and tried to match them,” Cronin said. “They got out in transition and, as everybody knows, they’re probably the best offensive team to play college basketball in a long, long time.”
Ed Schilling, the UCLA assistant coach in charge of defense, pointed to a trap by the Bruins’ “bigs” that neutralized Cincinnati’s Gary Clark, the undersized post man, and slowed the ball rotations.
“We tried to make Clark a little more uncomfortable,” Schilling said. “And then maybe they got a little more hesitant.”
It took one more combination to floor Cincinnati. Alford ran out for a layup, then hit a 3 in transition, then Ike Anigbogu ran to the hoop and dunked on a feed from Ball, and then Ball went to the hole himself. All of that took 2:02.
Ball’s 18-point, seven-rebound, nine-assist, one-turnover night was the surface story. But inside the room, the Bruins were just as glad to welcome back Anigbogu, who had sprained his foot and missed that Kent State game.
Anigbogu blocked a shot and scored six minutes in seven minutes, and ran without impediment.
“I didn’t feel too good yesterday,” Anigbogu said. “I knew it was a day-to-day thing.”
“We weren’t sure he’d play,” Schilling said. “But after practice, one of the trainers and I kept him out there and worked him out a little more. The trainers did a great job. You see the difference he makes.”
On Dec. 3 UCLA dropped its first hint when it went to Kentucky and won, 97-92. Six Bruins scored in double figures, and Leaf had 17 points and 13 rebounds. But they didn’t do anything that day that they haven’t done since. What seemed spectacular that day has become almost customary.
“I don’t know of a more fun basketball team to watch when we’ve been clicking,” Coach Steve Alford said. “We’ve had a lot of games when we’ve been clicking.”
It might be a lucrative couple of weeks for those who considered the Bruins a click worth picking.