UCLA guard Lonzo Ball corralled a rebound and threaded a pass to Aaron Holiday as he dashed up the court. Forgoing a shot, Holiday whipped a pass to the corner and T.J. Leaf, who buried the open 3-pointer.
Coach Steve Alford said he wanted to see better ball movement and tempo than the Bruins had shown in the Pacific-12 Conference tournament. UCLA was more of its efficient self Friday night in Sacramento – and avoided a first-round slip in the NCAA Tournament as a result.
The third-seeded Bruins fended off feisty No. 14 Kent State for a 97-80 win at Golden 1 Center that was closer than the final score showed. UCLA rode a display of accuracy down the stretch to a second-round matchup against sixth-seeded Cincinnati on Sunday.
UCLA watched the Golden Flashes trim its 17-point first-half lead to four after halftime. But with 12:20 left to play, the Bruins started a run of 12 consecutive made shots and 13 of their final 14 to pull away, finishing the night shooting 62.7 percent.
“I thought we had really good effort,” Alford said. “It was a battle. You look across the country – these games are battles.”
Kent State, champions of the Mid-American Conference, outrebounded the bigger Bruins and made more 3-pointers, but could not overcome UCLA’s versatility.
Leaf, the freshman forward, led UCLA with 23 points and had several emphatic dunks. Guard Aaron Holiday came off the bench to score 15 points and dish out a team-leading 11 assists.
Ball, the star freshman point guard, finished with 15 points despite hobbling through the second half with a bruised right hip. Going up for an alley-oop just before halftime, Ball was upended and landed hard on his backside, staying down for a few moments in pain.
“I’m fine,” Ball said afterward. “Finished the game. I got up; I’m good.”
Said Alford: “He went down hard, obviously. Probably be a little bit sore, but we’ve got great doctors, and this kid to my right’s pretty tough. Don’t think it’s anything we’ve got to worry about.”
At that point, Ball had already provided a glimpse of why he is expected to be a top-five NBA draft pick, finishing another alley-oop and a layup on which he cradled the ball in his right arm and flipped it into the basket while being fouled.
Ball also became UCLA’s all-time leader for assists in a season Friday night. It was a familiar formula for the Bruins, who had the nation’s top scoring offense this season behind freshmen Leaf – their leading scorer – and Ball, who led the country in assists per game.
“Just credit to my teammates,” Ball said. “Can’t get the assists without them scoring. So just thank them.”
Jaylin Walker led the Golden Flashes with 23 points. Walker, Jimmy Hall and Deon Edwin combined for 61 points, but the rest of Kent State’s roster totaled just 19, including 12 from Kevin Zabo.
“We had our chances, didn’t start the game very well but battled back,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said.
“I thought for the most part we guarded pretty well. (UCLA is) a good team, tremendous offensive team. But couldn’t be more proud of our guys for how well we fought through the entire game and for the season we had this year.”