SACRAMENTO, Calif. – UCLA raced out for layups, dropped in 3-pointers, piled up the points. The Bruins are the nation’s top-scoring team, so no surprise there.
The defense? That still could use a little work.
UCLA raced out to a big lead and held on through numerous defensive lapses, pulling away late for a 97-80 victory over scrappy Kent State on Friday night in the NCAA Tournament South Region.
“We were obviously very efficient on offense and at times were efficient on defense, just had some lapses there,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said.
UCLA (30-4) jumped out to a 14-point lead in the opening minutes, only to have its defensive issues rise up again. The third-seeded Bruins had numerous breakdowns and let Kent State claw back into it by halftime, eventually stretching the lead midway through the second half.
TJ Leaf scored 23 points and Thomas Welsh 16 for UCLA. Aaron Holliday added 15 points and 11 assists for the Bruins, who face No. 6 seed Cincinnati in the second round on Sunday in what should be a pressure-packed and entertaining game.
“If you lose, you’re done until next year, so that makes it a lot more pressure on you,” Leaf said.
Kent State (22-14) appeared shell shocked in its first NCAA Tournament since 2008, falling into a deep early hole. The Golden Flashes, who beat the top three seeds in the MAC Tournament, showed a bit of resiliency by fighting back, keeping the mighty Bruins close until late.
Jaylin Walker had 23 points and Jimmy Hall Jr. added 20 for Kent State.
“Couldn’t be more proud of our guys in terms of how we fought the entire game and during the season we had this year,” Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said.
On a day of upsets in the NCAA Tournament – namely over No. 6 seeds – Kent State was hoping to pull off the biggest one of the tournament. The Golden Flashes know a bit about NCAA upsets; this is the 15th anniversary of the 2002 Kent State team that reached the Elite Eight.
The Bruins appeared as if they weren’t going to give them much of a shot, dominating at both ends.
UCLA held Kent State to 1-of-11 shooting to open and raced out to a 16-2 lead behind Lonzo Ball and Leaf.
Ball had 10 points in the first 10 minutes and Leaf had 16 by halftime as the Bruins stretched the lead to 17.
Once the Golden Flashes found their bearings, they started to fight back, whittling away at UCLA’s lead.
By the time halftime arrived, they were back within striking distance, down 47-39.
“Where we weren’t poised is when we got up 16 in the first half and kind of let up,” Alford said. “Our shot selection wasn’t the best.”
The Golden Flashes continued their momentum surge to start the half, trimming the lead to four on Jalen Avery’s 3-pointer.
UCLA began to wear them down midway through the half, pushing the lead into double digits and stretching it from there.
“Ultimately, we didn’t get enough stops,” Senderoff said.
Kent State will lose seniors Hall and guard Deon Edwin, but have a strong foundation returning from an NCAA Tournament team.
UCLA had another strong offensive game, but continues to have issues on the defensive end, which could hurt later in the tournament.
Ball finished with 15 points and had three assists to break UCLA’s all-time season assists record. He has 257, passing the record of 256 set by Larry Drew II in 2012-13.
The freshman point guard also took a hard fall late in the first half, landing on his right hip. He was limping after the fall, but stayed in the game and was in the starting lineup in the second half.
“I’m fine. Finished the game, got up. I’m good,” he said.
Kent State was second nationally in offensive rebounding during the regular season and had a strong night against UCLA, snaring 15. That led to 15 second-chance points and gave the Golden Flashes a 36-33 overall rebounding advantage.
UCLA will face No. 6 seed Cincinnati in the second round on Sunday.
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