It wasn’t easy, but UCLA (28-3, 15-3 Pac 12) prevailed on Senior Night in Pauley Pavilion over an inspired and hustling Washington State (13-17, 6-12 Pac 12), 77-68.
In what could have been a case of emotional hangover, with the reality of three popular seniors playing their last game for UCLA on Nell and John Wooden Floor, the Bruins were not in sync giving a determined Cougar team hope for upset.
The Cougars only trailed at the half by one at the half. The lead changed hands 10 times. The game was tied six times and Washington State had its largest lead of three with 12:48 left in the contest.
Fans who expected a blowout with a lot of celebration were treated to a donnybrook for most of the game, but the party finally arrived when the Bruins went on a 18-2 run about midway through the second stanza to achieve the desired outcome, a victory for seniors, Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Jerrold Smith.
“Really proud of my guys,” UCLA Coach Steve Alford said. “They just battled all year long. We had 28 regular-season wins. It’s pretty difficult at a place like this to do something that hasn’t been done or tie something that’s been done—a milestone. Twenty-eight regular-season wins. That’s the most ever.”
“This has been a special team already, through the regular season, that I’m awful proud of. It was a lot of emotion in this game. I’ve been a part of 26 Senior Days and any time you’re part of the emotion—I told the guys, it just means you’re invested. If there’s no emotion, you’re not very invested, and I think you saw a lot of that today.
“I’ve just got a group of guys that, even though there’s three seniors that we’re awfully proud of, and two senior managers, it’s really a team. That team isn’t going to play in Pauley again, so they can see these endings of things. When you’ve got a team that’s so invested like this team, that emotion comes out. I’m obviously very, very proud of our seniors. They’ve been tremendous throughout their careers.”
The Bruins ended in the regular season the way they started by sharing the basketball and hitting the open man. Five Bruins ended up in double figures, including Alford, who hit two threes to tie him with Jason Kapono for the most threes made in a UCLA uniform. Alford ended up with 13 points.
Another record was set by a Bruin during this very special season. Freshman sensation, Lonzo Ball, had 14 assists and broke the Pac 12 freshman assist record in the process. Ball is in some very elevated company passing by Jason Kidd [223 assists] and Gary Payton . Ball has 241 assists and counting. He also had 11 points, notching his ninth double-double of the year.
The spark plug off the bench, Aaron Holiday, led the Bruins in scoring with 16 points. Hamilton had 14 points and Thomas Welsh contributed a double-double scoring 13 points and came down with a 11 boards. Welsh also hit his first three from beyond the arc.
Now the regular season is done and feeling in the locker room is in stark contrast to a year ago. Alford talks moving toward season number two and three, meaning the Pac 12 Tournament to be followed by the NCAA Tournament.
“Well, I love it,” Alford said. “We got a little stagnant tonight, I thought, for the first time in a long time. We haven’t been without TJ [Leaf] all year.”
“I thought GG [Goloman] did a lot of good things for us tonight. He competed like crazy. I thought everybody had a lot of good minutes tonight. It was just different. We haven’t had to play that way for a while.”
“Defensively, I thought we were really good. I thought we defended them a lot better than we did up in Pullman. [The game in Pullman] was really when the streak started, so that was a positive.”
“Offensively, we haven’t shot 44% much this year, so we didn’t make a lot of shots. Again, 22 assists on 27 made field goals—that’s who we are—and another game where we have less than 10 turnovers. I obviously love where we are offensively. We get TJ back, that gives us, obviously, a huge weapon.”
“Then defensively, we’ve grown a lot. Our efficiency defensively was like 96 at the half and I’m guessing that we made our defensive efficiency tonight, of 95. It’s getting better and we’re going to need that as now we get into postseason. Feel very, very good where we’re at.”
“Got to get TJ healthy. I’ll feel a lot better when he’s healthy, but we get a healthy TJ back and we’re feeling pretty good about things.”
The next time the Bruins hit the floor will be Thursday, March 9 in the quarterfinal of the Pac 12 Tournament. UCLA will tipoff against the winner of the USC-Washington first-round game. The game will be a late one starting approximately 8:30PM PST. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN.
The Bruins have earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of Wednesday evening's USC-Washington game on Thursday, March 9. UCLA's quarterfinal contest on Thursday will begin at approximately 8:30 pm (PT) and will be nationally televised on ESPN.