UCLA struggled to shoot from the field through the first 30 minutes of Sunday’s contest against UC Irvine.
So instead of repeatedly clanking jump shots off the rim, the No. 23 Bruins (5-1) drove the ball inside the paint and sought contact to earn their way to the free-throw line. That effort culminated in a 26-of-40 shooting performance from the charity stripe en route to an 87-63 win over the Anteaters (3-5).
“Our guys’ focus was to get to the free-throw line, get to the basket and post it, and they stayed with it,” said coach Steve Alford. “I thought we really attacked inside-out and we didn’t live and die by the 3-point shot.”
Once UC Irvine trimmed its deficit to only two points when there were fewer than four minutes into the second half, UCLA’s next six points all came on free throws, triggering a 24-7 run that put the game away.
Kris Wilkes led the team with 13 free-throw attempts and made eight, helping the freshman guard score double digits for the fifth time this season despite shooting only 3-of-9 from the field.
He also suffered a hard fall after getting fouled on a layup attempt. After lying on the ground for a few moments, Wilkes got up and walked gingerly to the sideline. He grabbed his left hip on defense during the ensuing possession, but played the rest of the game.
“Kris Wilkes got banged up on Friday, in practice he got banged up,” Alford said. “He did a really good job of toughening up and doing everything he could do playing.”
Wilkes’ status was a concern for Alford, whose rotation was already trimmed down to seven healthy players with freshman guard Jaylen Hands out with a left foot sprain he suffered against Wisconsin last week.
While Hands is day to day, redshirt sophomore guard Prince Ali started in his place and scored a career-high and game-high 21 points. Ali began the game by sinking a 3-pointer while being fouled, and finished with a 6-of-12 mark from the field.
“I thought he took advantage of his starting role tonight and he got us going definitely in the first half,” Alford said. “He came out and was aggressive. He’s got to be a scorer for us.”
Ali also shot 6-of-8 from the free-throw line, a notable improvement over his 50 percent figure entering the game. He missed all four of his attempts against South Carolina State with his left foot in front of his right – rare for a right-handed shooter – so he switched his stance last week.
“I went 0-for-4 that game so the next morning that for sure changed,” Ali said. “I worked with coach Alford for about an hour the next morning and I found a routine that worked.”
The rest of the Bruins’ starting lineup scored in double-digits as the five combined to tally 87 percent of UCLA’s points.
Senior center Thomas Welsh recorded his fourth double-double of the season with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Junior point guard Aaron Holiday and senior forward G.G. Goloman chipped in 16 and 12 points, respectively.
The trio additionally contributed three blocks and four steals, part of the team’s emphasis to improve its half-court defense. UC Irvine only scored 16 points in the paint and shot 34.4 percent compared to 30 UCLA points in the paint and a 43.1 shooting percentage.
“Our middle-ball screen coverage has been better,” Welsh said. “We’ve just been better with ball pressure in general.”