It wasn’t just that No. 14 UCLA beat SEC and Big Ten teams over the weekend, it was how those wins were achieved that should inspire some more confidence.
For the first time in this young season, UCLA found itself in not one, but two tight games. It won both, claiming the tournament title at the Wooden Legacy in the process.
In Friday’s semifinal it staved off a pesky Nebraska team that nearly erased UCLA’s 15-point second-half lead. Then it withstood four lead changes and two tie scores in the final five minutes of Sunday’s win over Texas A&M in the tournament title game.
It’s not like they’re toppling the best teams in the country (Wait for it…UCLA plays at No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday!) but these are major conference opponents that pushed the Bruins to provide answers to some significant questions. Most notably, could freshmen Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf answer the bell in close games? The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Ball, the tournament MVP, averaged 16 points and nine assists and made several pressure shots. Leaf averaged 13 and seven and made two clutch baskets in the final minutes of the championship game.
Blowing out the likes of Long Beach State and Cal State Northridge is nice, but those teams didn’t force UCLA to exercise the part of its collective brain that is triggered when a game is in doubt late in the second half. They will undoubtedly endure more adversity this season, but the Bruins have successfully moved into the second phase of their nonconference schedule.