SG Isaac Hamilton (USA Today)

UCLA Overcomes Circumstances For Win

Dec. 16 -- UCLA overcame some significant personnel losses to beat Louisiana-Lafayette 89-80 on Tuesday night...

UCLA escaped a lively Louisiana-Lafayette team at home on Tuesday night, riding a mostly excellent offensive performance from Bryce Alford to an 89-80 win.

Given the circumstances of the game — Thomas Welsh out (stomach virus), Prince Ali out (bone bruise in knee), Isaac Hamilton fouling out with four minutes to go, Tony Parker playing through foul trouble — it was actually a pretty gutty win. Noah Allen, Ikenna Okwarabizie, and Alex Olesinski all had to play important minutes, with long stretches of the game coming with two of those players on the court at the same time. If the team was still playing with the same effort level of mid-November, there’s little doubt this game would have been a loss.

Now, that’s not to say this was a great win, or even a very good effort from the Bruins. UCLA clearly had some lulls in this one, particularly when the team went up by 19 points midway through the first half. But as has been the case for most of the modern era of UCLA basketball, the Bruins played well enough and hard enough in spurts to handle the decent mid-major team at home. That it happened without two key cogs in the rotation, and that the Bruins were able to hold off the Ragin’ Cajuns in the last four minutes without Isaac Hamilton as well, made it somewhat impressive.

Alford, as we said above, had an exceptional game for the most part. He made big shots when they needed to be made, including a couple of key threes at the end of the first half to push the halftime lead to double digits right after a ULL run (which came largely at the expense of a lineup that featured Okwarabizie prominently). Then, in the second half down the stretch, he made a big three to put UCLA up by nine late, which more or less iced the game with 1:55 to go. He took fewer bad shots, and for large portions of the game was under control and focused on distributing the ball.

He and the rest of the team went into a weird funk when they went up by 19, which allowed Louisiana-Lafayette to get back into the game. Over a few minute stretch, it looked like UCLA just lost its focus, relaxing defensively and then also getting pretty sloppy offensively, with a number of bad passes, including a couple of sloppy behind-the-back attempts.

Though the defensive intensity wasn’t phenomenal, a big issue appeared to be having unfamiliar players playing key minutes. Noah Allen gave a good effort, but he also over-helped quite a bit, which left ULL players open for three pointers. Okwarabizie really didn’t know what he was doing on either end of the floor. Olesinski also shouldn’t have to play those kinds of minutes. If there’s any really significant worry that was underscored by this game, it was the lack of depth this team has. They really are just an injury and a stomach bug away from struggling to beat a decent-but-not-great mid-major team at home.

Isaac Hamilton was actually one of the best players on the court for much of the first half, and provided a steadying influence — who would have thought that a month ago? His old-man game was working really well, and he did a great job of cleaning up loose balls and turning them into points. He’s shooting with a lot of confidence right now, and hopefully that keeps up because that adds a really nice dimension to UCLA’s offense. Hamilton, though, was probably the biggest culprit with the loss of focus, as he tried at least two behind-the-back passes himself and just seemed to get a little goofy when the Bruins ran out to a big lead.

Tony Parker put up some numbers, but it didn’t appear that he actually played that well. Shawn Long, the ULL big man, really seemed to bring a little more energy and fight to this one, and Parker seemed to get thrown off his game a little bit against him. A senior now, Parker should be able to finish at the hoop through contact better than he was in this game. But, to be charitable, if you want to look for growth in Parker’s game — even on a night where he was playing a position he wasn’t expecting to play heading into the day, and even when his intensity level wasn’t quite at the level it’s been in the past few weeks, he was still able to put up 19 points and nine rebounds.

Aaron Holiday continued his current freshman funk, looking a little out of sorts on both ends. He missed a few opportunities to drive the ball against Louisiana-Lafayette, and just didn’t look comfortable running the offense. UCLA really wasn’t in the position to take Alford or Hamilton out of the game too often because Holiday was just a bit too shaky. This is obviously a common thing for freshman to go through periods like this, but, equally obviously, UCLA needs him to break out of it more or less immediately if the Bruins have any shot of beating North Carolina.

Jonah Bolden wasn’t the force he was against Gonzaga, but he still made some big plays, including a couple of contested offensive boards and a nice-looking three pointer. He floated in this one again, perhaps by design, but we’d really like to see him develop his post game more, as that could give UCLA a potential mismatch with his passing ability. In this one, so short-handed, Bolden probably had to fill a number of different roles, though.

The game really demonstrated the lack of depth. Allen, Okwarabizie, and Olesinski all uniformly played hard, and that’s really commendable, but those three probably shouldn’t be playing any minutes at this point. Hopefully, Welsh and Ali are both healthy and ready for Saturday, because it’s not going to be pretty if any of the other three have to play major bench minutes.

So, essentially, UCLA did what it needed to do Tuesday night, under difficult circumstances. Now the Bruins will head back out of Los Angeles to attempt to complete the trifecta and beat another very good ranked team. If the Bruins can somehow pull it off, we’ll live in a world where UCLA and Monmouth have the best collection of wins in the nation.

What a time to be alive.

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