This post was updated March 17 at 10:39 p.m.
SACRAMENTO – It was a fairly typical performance from this UCLA team in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
The No. 3 seed Bruins’ (30-4) offense excelled throughout Friday night’s matchup with the No. 14-seeded Kent State Golden Flashes (22-14), but shaky defense kept the game from devolving into a blowout until midway through the second half.
Then UCLA once again accelerated offensively, hitting 13 of its final 14 shots to pull away and advance into a second-round matchup with No. 6 seed Cincinnati on Sunday.
Friday marked UCLA’s third-most efficient offensive performance of the year, per KenPom.com, with the Bruins shooting 62.7 percent for the game, connecting on seven of their 14 3-point tries and turning the ball over just six times on the night.
“Our offense was clicking pretty good,” said coach Steve Alford. “We shot a very high percentage, we got to the free throw line – we did a lot of good things.”
Five Bruins scored in double figures, led by freshman forward T.J. Leaf’s 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
Point guard Lonzo Ball, recently named the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year, tallied 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting while adding three assists to break UCLA’s all-time single-season assists record.
“Credit to my teammates – I can’t get an assist without them scoring,” Ball said. “I thank them.”
Ball made UCLA fans hold their collective breath late in the first half when he fell to the floor in the process of trying to catch an alley-oop pass, then came up holding his right hip. Ball would stay in the game, though, and a UCLA spokesperson said the injury was just a bruise.
“I’m fine,” Ball said after the game. “Finished the game, got up. I’m good.”
The Bruins were not good, though, coming out of halftime. The Golden Flashes, who trimmed an early deficit to single digits at the end of the first half, produced another run early in the second, getting within four points and prompting Alford to call a timeout less than four minutes into the period.
“I have no idea what I said,” Alford said of the huddle during the timeout. “(I was) trying to calm them down and get some stops defensively … We take a lot of pride winning that four-minute game coming out of half, and we didn’t do that.”
On the other end of the timeout, UCLA asserted itself, gradually building its lead back to double digits over the next four minutes.
Then the offense exploded to put the game out of reach, scoring 33 points over the final 12 minutes and 20 seconds. The Bruins’ lone miss during that stretch was a botched layup by senior guard Isaac Hamilton.
Spearheading the final push was sophomore guard Aaron Holiday, who recorded nine points and seven assists in the second half en route to a 15-point, 11-assist double-double off the bench.
Junior center Thomas Welsh, his mid-range jumper as reliable as ever, added 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
UCLA’s main struggle was keeping Kent State, who entered the game ranked fifth in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, from generating second chances.
With senior forward Jimmy Hall leading the way, the Golden Flashes grabbed 15 offensive boards on the night. Hall produced 20 points and 15 rebounds for the game.
“He’s a heck of a player,” Leaf said. “He was tough to play against, but at the end of the day all we care about is getting the win.”
UCLA will play in the second round Sunday against No. 6 seed Cincinnati, which defeated Kansas State 75-61 on Friday.