Even star freshmen have a learning curve.
Two nights after dropping 68 points in the first half against Pacific, No. 16 UCLA (2-0) struggled out of the gate against Cal State Northridge.
Five players, including freshman forward TJ Leaf, picked up two or more fouls in the first 20 minutes of the game to go along with 11 turnovers.
The team regrouped and put up their second 100-plus game of the season, but coach Steve Alford called the game a learning experience, one that would prepare the Bruins for national scrutiny a season after going 15-17.
“When you are early in the season there are always lessons to be learned. We got a lot of lessons,” Alford said. “This is going to be a feeling out process and a learning process for the guys. We have a lot of guys, individuals, who have targets on their back, and when you are at UCLA and you start getting a lot of attention, those targets get even bigger.”
Freshman guard Lonzo Ball and Leaf, both five-star recruits out of high school, had doubles-doubles in the home-opener against the Tigers.
But in the first half on Sunday night, Leaf picked up two early fouls and played nine minutes while Ball had four turnovers to just two assists in his 18 minutes on the floor.
“How we started the first half, we wanted to rope-a-dope,” Alford said.”We don’t have anyone in our locker room that is Muhammad Ali and they are too young to understand the rope-a-dope. So we wanted to come out throwing punches first and early and I didn’t think we did that tonight.”
Heading into the locker room, the Bruins trailed the Matadors by two points with the focus turning towards forgetting their first half performance and listening to Alford’s message about throwing the early punches.
Foul trouble continued and the turnovers were still there for the team, but the two freshmen, Ball and Leaf, played the way Alford wanted them to.
Ball made an early three off a Leaf assist coming out of halftime and then the guard dunked the ball seconds later.
“We have to hit the first punch in the first five minutes and continue from there to let the momentum swing our way,” senior guard Isaac Hamilton said.
Five minutes in, the Bruins had a 55-53 edge, which they never relinquished.
Leaf and Ball finished just short of double-doubles, but this close game, coming after a 40-point blowout in the season opener, was critical for the team according to Alford.
“It’s a learning process. We have a chance to be a great team and that is what we are building towards,” Alford said. “There is a lot of work that has to go into it. These are experiences they have to go through to see what we are talking about as coaches.”