This post was updated Nov. 17 at 9:15 p.m.
For the second straight game, UCLA men’s basketball allowed an unheralded nonconference opponent to keep the score close into the second half.
The No. 23 Bruins (3-0) allowed the South Carolina State Bulldogs (0-4) to go on an 8-0 run to cut the hosts’ lead to 7 with 12 minutes left in the game, but UCLA quickly returned the favor with 14 unanswered points en route to a 96-68 win Friday night.
After entering halftime against Central Arkansas with only a two-point lead on Wednesday, the Bruins only outscored the Bulldogs by six points in the first period and allowed them to shoot 50 percent on 3-pointers.
Coach Steve Alford was displeased by his team’s effort on both ends of the court to open the game – specifically Aaron Holiday’s – and benched the junior guard for a brief stint less than five minutes into the contest.
“I just didn’t like his start,” Alford said. “I’ve got a lot of trust in Aaron because he’s been around and I know what we can get out of him, and I thought once he came back in he did a lot of good things from there.”
In the second half, UCLA outscored South Carolina State by 22 points. The Bruins locked in defensively on the perimeter, limiting the Bulldogs to 3-of-9 shooting from long distance.
“We really picked it up in the second half,” said freshman guard Jaylen Hands. “Our main thing is to get out and have fun and run, so I think if we get comfortable with each other it will become easier.”
A big part of the reason Hands and the offense was able to run upcourt was the team’s edge on the interior.
Led by 7-foot senior center Thomas Welsh, the Bruins came into the game with a drastic height advantage over the Bulldogs – no player on the visitors’ roster is listed as taller than 6-foot-9, and UCLA has five listed taller than that in its roster. The Bruins took advantage of that height advantage with 44 points in the paint and eight blocks.
“We are long, we are athletic, so I do think we’re gonna have some rim protection,” Alford said. “That’s not just the length up front. Having (freshman guards) Kris Wilkes and Chris Smith, we’ve got length in the backcourt.”
Welsh grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds and recorded his second consecutive double-double with 13 points as well. As a team, UCLA outrebounded South Carolina State 51-30, including 19 offensive rebounds, leading to a 23-9 advantage on second-chance points.
Smith scored a team-high 15 points off the bench and scored four points in the run that put the Bulldogs away. Meanwhile, Hands – who led the Bruins with 22 points – put the game away with 12 points in the last six minutes.
Alford praised the performance of both Smith and redshirt sophomore forward Alex Olesinski, who added eight points and 10 rebounds.
“I thought both of those guys were outstanding for us – at both ends,” Alford said. “We’ve always known that Alex has a really big basketball IQ. And Chris obviously is a special talent at 6-foot-9 – (a) long and athletic guard. And I just thought he let the game come to him.”
One potential issue for Alford’s squad early in the season is its free-throw shooting.
UCLA shot a blistering 70 percent from the floor in the second half and 55.2 percent over the entire game, but only shot 50 percent from the free throw line. The Bruins have now shot less than 70 percent from the charity stripe in all three of their games this season after shooting 73.8 percent from the same spot last year.
“It’s about clearing your mind, and part of clearing your mind is toughness,” Alford said. “We’ve just got too many guys that I think are thinking about it and they’re worried about it.”