|UCLA guard Lonzo Ball (2) celebrates after hitting a three-point shot against Cincinnati during a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Sacramento, Calif., Sunday, March 19, 2017. UCLA won 79-67. (AP Photo/Steve Yeater)|
mar 19, 2017 | THUC NHI NGUYEN | THE L.A. daily newS | ARTICLE LINK
SACRAMENTO >> Lonzo Ball shot UCLA into the Sweet 16 with a jab step, a pull-up and a straight face.
The freshman coolly nailed back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the second half against Cincinnati on Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to help UCLA advance to the round of 16 with a 79-67 win over the sixth-seeded Bearcats in Sacramento.
Ball’s two big buckets were part of a 9-0 run that turned a one-point deficit into an eight-point lead that UCLA (31-4) never relinquished. The Chino Hills native finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and nine assists with only one turnover.
The third-seeded Bruins advanced to their third Sweet 16 in four years, where they will face No. 2 Kentucky on Friday at 6:40 p.m. PT in Memphis.
When asked about how he is so often able to seize momentum for the Bruins, the publicly understated Ball said he just felt like he has “a good feel for the game.”
UCLA coach Steve Alford was quick to correct the freshman.
“He has a great feel for the game,” the coach said. “Not just good.”
Ball didn’t record an assist during the first half as No. 6 Cincinnati, the fourth-best scoring defense in the country, held UCLA to a season-low 30 first-half points. The Bruins had scoreless spells that stretched for minutes at a time, including a debilitating drought that lasted nearly four minutes while Cincinnati (30-6) went on a 12-0 run.
Thomas Welsh and Isaac Hamilton were the only salvation the Bruins had early on offense as they combined for the team’s first 10 points. The rest of the team started 0 for 8 from the field.
Leading scorer TJ Leaf was stymied by foul trouble in the first half as he picked up two fouls in less than 10 minutes. He was held scoreless during the first half, missing his first five shots.
Senior Bryce Alford continued his recent struggles with just three points in the first half on 1-for-3 shooting. In the previous four games, Alford shot only 25 percent from the field (10 for 40).
“We were upset with the way both of us played so it was an aggressive mentality,” Bryce Alford said of himself and Leaf. “I talked to TJ at halftime and made sure that he stayed aggressive. That’s all you can do is stay aggressive and continue to trust in what you do.”
The mindset paid off as Alford jump-started the Bruins in the second half with a 3-pointer on the first possession. UCLA started the second half on a 10-3 run after trailing by three at the break. Leaf got going, scoring four points during that run.
Alford capped UCLA’s game-clinching 9-0 run with 12:25 to go by rattling in a 3-pointer to give the Bruins a 55-47 lead. He finished with 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting, with three assists.
UCLA had five double-digit scorers, including Hamilton (10), Leaf (11) and Welsh (11).
UCLA shot 63.3 percent from the field in the second half after shooting at a 37.5 percent clip in the first half. Cincinnati ground UCLA’s up-tempo offense to a halt in the first half, but the Bruins got going behind the playmaking ability of Ball.
“I don’t know of a more fun basketball team to watch when we’re clicking and we’ve had a lot of games where we’ve been clicking,” Steve Alford said. “I think the difference is in the last seven weeks we’ve been better defensively.”
UCLA held Cincinnati to 41.2 percent shooting in the second half, including just 21.4 percent from 3-point range. The Bruins forced 10 turnovers while giving the ball away only three times. In their two NCAA Tournament wins, the Bruins have combined nine turnovers.
Two second-half spurts and a dynamic freshman point guard have UCLA in the Sweet 16 again. When asked on the TBS broadcast about how he was able to engineer Sunday’s second-half performance, Ball said: “It’s just winning time.”
With him at the helm, the clock continues to run on UCLA’s winning season.