UCLA got a win it desperately needed on Sunday night. Now, it just needs to scratch out five or six more.
The Bruins injected a bit of life into their tepid NCAA tournament hopes in Tempe, closing out a 78-65 win over Arizona State — one of just two teams sitting below them in the Pac-12 standings. After weathering some hot shooting early on, they held ASU to 31 percent from the field in the second half. With 86 seconds left, Steve Alford felt comfortable enough to empty his bench.
Talent disparity or not, UCLA (13-11, 5-7) showed a few encouraging signs. Most crucial was the play of sophomore Jonah Bolden, who led the Bruins with a career-high 16 points. That’s no small feat, even considering his four-star pedigree. Heading into Valentine’s Day, the 6-foot-10 forward had averaged just 3.5 points per game in conference play.
Perhaps sharing the floor with Tony Parker has helped. The senior center is by no means a perfect player, but he nonetheless commands a healthy share of defensive attention. And in the last couple of games, Alford has become more willing to play Bolden next to Parker, rather than subbing out Bolden for sophomore Gyorgy Goloman.
Bolden has responded, totaling 26 points through the weekend — nearly a quarter of his season total. At the Wells Fargo Arena on Sunday, he was also one rebound away from his second career double-double. Meanwhile, Parker poured in eight points in just 13 minutes off the bench.
UCLA’s usual stars also had well-rounded performances. Isaac Hamilton recorded 12 points and six rebounds, scoring in double figures for the 21st consecutive game. Point guard Bryce Alford grabbed seven boards to go with 10 points and 11 assists.
But the other unexpected showing came from Prince Ali, the freshman guard whom Steve Alford had all but dismissed as a work in progress back in late January. The four-star recruit still has a tendency to force bad shots, but tied his career high with 12 points in 22 minutes — easily his heaviest workload against a Pac-12 opponent.
The turnaround was due largely to his performance from beyond the arc. In conference play, Ali was just 2 of 14 on 3-point attempts. At Arizona State, he only missed one of his three tries.
Of course, the Sun Devils do allow opponents average 45.3 percent from the field, the league’s worst mark. UCLA’s next three opponents — Utah, Colorado, and Cal — all rank among the top four in the Pac-12, holding teams to below 42 percent.