With two top-25 wins in nine days, UCLA emerges as a contender out West

The way that Kyle Wiltjer began the game, hitting three three-pointers in a little more than a minute, seemed to herald yet another one of those Zagtastic nights. The McCarthey Athletic Center, better known for its nickname, The Kennel, was rocking. It was filled to the brim with the standard sellout of 6,000 fans, one-third of whom constitute one of the most boisterous student sections in America.

Wiltjer, a redshirt-senior, is a preseason national player of the year canditate, and in that heat-check-heavy stretch, he looked it. In fact, he was downright Durant-esque, hitting these deep shots off the bounce, keeping his defender off balance with a healthy series of fakes and syncopation.

This had been UCLA’s Achilles heel last season, when the Bruins struggled mightily on the road, including a 2–7 mark during conference play. They’d started well on Saturday night, picking up an early 10–3 lead, punctuated by a Thomas Welsh jump hook over Wiltjer that elicited a “Nice shot” from an NBA scout in attendance.

But back came Gonzaga in the first indication of what would be a game of runs, the most forceful of which, from Gonzaga, brought the game to within one point after Bulldogs redshirt-freshman Josh Perkins converted an emphatic drive down the heart of the lane. The place was once more rocking; one wondered if UCLA might soon find itself reeling.

But this was a night where growth happened, and UCLA coach Steve Alford specifically spoke to that, afterwards. “This was just big for our team,” Alford said. “For us to come on our first true road trip of the season, in a place like this and not just get a win here, but do a lot of good things…I’m proud of our guys.”

Alford referenced the fact that UCLA never allowed Gonzaga’s explosive offense to really get clicking. They’d done the same nine days earlier in that win over No. 1 Kentucky. But go back to the first game of this season, when UCLA had indeed faded late, at home, in an overtime loss to Monmouth.

This time, against the Zags, the Bruins relied upon a succession of fantastically clutch plays put an exclamation point on one of the best victories of Alford’s three-year tenure. “This team’s growing, and that’s what you want to see, week to week,” said Alford. “Against Monmouth, we had 23 turnovers. Tonight, we had eight. I’m very excited.”

Hamilton responded with a knuckleball floater (“My float game,” he said afterwards. “That’s my shot, and I’ve been shooting it all my life.”). Then, Alford hit one of the most incredible shots I’ve ever seen, of the circus-shot variety, falling down, flipping it up with his left hand off the glass and in. All these big plays, and heady defense, salted away the 71–66 win.

“This was definitely payback,” Hamilton said afterwards, noting that last season, in addition to knocking UCLA out of the NCAA tournament, in the Sweet 16, Gonzaga’s win over the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion in December had triggered a five-game UCLA losing streak. “So, getting ‘em back tonight was pretty sweet. I enjoyed it.”

“I thought what Isaac did for the whole game was really good,” said Alford. “He handled the ball really well, distributed well, made shots.”

Along with Bryce Alford and Tony Parker (excellent in the second half against Gonzaga), Hamilton is one of three returning starters from last season, a fact that Steve Alford believes is of utmost importance. “Last year, we only had one senior in (Norman Powell), and everyone else was in his first year of starting,” Alford said. “Now, we’ve got guys who’ve been there, done that. Your freshmen play with a little more poise when they see the veterans not panicking.”

UCLA stayed aggressive throughout, at times carving through Gonzaga’s defense with well-worked passing and movement, and when the Bulldogs switched to a series of zones in the waning stages of the second half, to try and harass the Bruins into turnovers, they didn’t flinch. UCLA finished with just those eight turnovers, one of several key stats that helped mask a poor 10-of-18 performance from the foul line.

“We got good shots,” said Steve Alford, noting the healthy balance between perimeter and post points for UCLA. This season, UCLA has seen teams (most recently, Long Beach State) try and create matchup problems by putting four guards on the court, against UCLA’s bigs.

One player who will be huge in that department going forward is Jonah Bolden, the 6–10 sophomore wunderkind, who grew in stature as the game wore on. His defense on Wiltjer was outstanding, the rare combination of length and athleticism that can keep Gonzaga’s star forward at (relative) bay. Wiltjer still finished with 20 points, tying Hamilton for the game high, but he had to work for it — and it was something of a victory that after he’d poured in those nine points before five minutes had gone in the game. He managed just 11 more the rest of the way.

Bolden finished with a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) and played a key 30 minutes with Prince Ali, normally a key rotation player for the Bruins, sidelined with a knee strain he suffered minutes into the game. Bolden is a match up nightmare with range that extends out to three, and an ever-developing passing ability. Parker noted that when Gonzaga went zone, it was Bolden who was featured at the top of the key as the option to cut it apart.

A note on Steve’s son, Bryce, the Bruins star junior and leading scorer. Everywhere he goes, he is heckled. Last night, there were more “Daddy’s Boy” chants, a kind of standard fare from opposing student sections. The chants are unmerited, but hey, it’s college. When did chants ever seek to be steeped in fact.

What is interesting is that from the moment he heard that first catcall, during his first trip to the free throw line minutes in the second half, Alford controlled the game. It was reminiscent of what Kevin Pangos used to do for Gonzaga the past four seasons — only, Alford was hitting tougher shots. Like, seriously. Dude has a knack and a flow that allows him to maximize every possible inch of space. His timing is down to milliseconds.

Against Kentucky, he hit a three in the first half after coming off a screen and ending up on the right wing. Alford kept his eyes on the teammate that had just passed him the ball until, BOOM, he was releasing his shot, affording a look at the basket only at the final moment. His defender didn’t stand a chance. Alford did something of the same against Gonzaga in the first half, releasing a jumper while he still was setting his feet.

What pops was proudest of was his game management. Alford committed just one turnover, and chipped in three assists. He shrugged off yet another round of dogged defense, players grabbing him and holding him as he reeled ‘round screens. It’s yet another instance of growth, and a reason that UCLA continues to look like it has a chance to contend for a Pac-12 title, but surface as a menace no team wants to face come March.

This, just weeks after a beatdown by Kansas, and a tough loss to Wake Forest in Maui. Growth, man. The Bruins are doing it at an accelerated rate.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops