Ball is MVP of Sac. — At halftime in Sacramento, up by 3 over trendy Final Four pick UCLA, Cincinnati might have been having visions of an easy “Natty” (National Championship); Then came Lonzo Ball-bearing down on the Bearcats, as the Bruins rolled a ‘nati on a roll to a Natty of their own, 79-67
What a day, what a day, what a day, what a day, what a day! First, slimy Rick Pitino and 2-seed Louisville gets knocked out of the NCAA Tournament, by Michigan (a team UCLA already beat this year). Then slimy Southern Cal got eliminated by Baylor, when trojan thug Chimeze Metu choked away their chance by goaltending a late Bear lay-up. So sad for Metu, but KARMA. He had a monster game, scoring 28, but will forever be known around here for slapping/punching one opponent in the back, and trying to trip another one along the sidelines during a game, and now, for costing sc a shot at the Sweet 16, where they haven’t been since Metu was only 4 feet tall.
So Louisville and SUC were gone. What else could I ask for on this day? How about 2-seed DUKE getting bounced in the Round of 32, by the REAL USC? Duke choked away a double-digit lead, and fell down by double-digits before losing by 7. Also today, 3 other teams I hate (North Carolina, Kentucky, and Oregon) all showed major vulnerability, barely eeking out tough victories as all their opponents blatantly choked in the final minutes). UK and maybe UNC, could be UCLA’s next foes, so it’s a confidence-builder for the Bruins to see that both of those mighty powers were not so mighty today.
So this is a whole lot of good news (and bad, but encouraging news), and I haven’t even gotten to the Bruin game yet. But before I do, I have even more fun facts: Ex-trojan player and current Laker thug Nick Young (aka “Swaggy P”) just got fined $25,000 by the NBA for Thuggery on the court. After he got fouled, he took exception, got up and shoved the player, causing a bench-clearing brawl. The foul was nothing out of the ordinary — just a hard foul that you see all the time. But being such a pUSCy, Thuggy P had to make something out of it. I would say he lost his composure, but he never had any to begin with.
So “what a day,” indeed. But if UCLA didn’t survive the Round of 32, the day would still live in infamy. And for a while, it didn’t look good. The Bruins’ leading scorers T.J. Leaf and Bryce Alford started the game cold as ice, going a combined 1-for-10 from the floor. A rare off night for Leaf, and the 5th straight off-game for Bryce. In fact, only two Bruins scored at all in the first NINE minutes of the game: Thomas Welsh and Isaac Hamilton, who each had 5 early points.
That freezing Bruin start, caused by good Defense as well as just bad shooting, allowed Cinci to be up by 6 at 19-13. Finally UCLA started to wake up, battling back to take the lead 27-26 on a Lonzo Ball 3-pointer. But Cincinnati stayed tough, taking a 33-30 lead into the locker room.
It was the lowest-scoring half of the year for UCLA. They had no fast break points, and were shooting a horrible percentage. Lonzo had ZERO Assists in the entire half. That should tell you everything you need to know. The pace was wrong, the rhythm wasn’t there, and injured Ike Anigbogu played only a couple of minutes at the end of the half (and scored 3 points). They would need ALL of this to change after the break — and it did.
The Bruins came out of Intermission a completely re-invigorated squad. Lonzo Ball took over the game, in all facets. He started racking up Rebounds, and Assists by the bunch, as his teammates got hot. The Bruins took the lead shortly after Halftime, and ratcheted up the pace. Cinci hung tough for about 6 or 7 minutes, so Ball took matters into his own hands, sinking two consecutive long bombs to put UCLA up by 5, then Alford — emerging from his prolonged slump — hit one to push the margin to 8. The Bearcats never got any closer than 5 the rest of the way, with UCLA leading by about 9 for much of the duration. UC’s Jarron Cumberland, who led Cinci with 15 points, made several difficult shots to keep the game from being a blowout, but the game was hardly ever in doubt in the final 10 minutes.
Lonzo showed the whole Country why he is a Wooden Award candidate, leading the Bruins IN FOUR CATEGORIES, with 18 Points, 9 Assists (with only 1 Turnover), 7 Rebounds (Welsh and Leaf also had 7 Boards a piece), and 2 Steals (Aaron Holiday also had 2 Steals, back-to-back). Lonzo personally took over the game, but it didn’t hurt that Leaf and Alford re-emerged with 11 and 13 in the second half. Welsh ended with 11 points also, including 2 on a gigantic put-back slam.
Every one of the Bruins’ 8 rotation players had an impact in this game. Besides Holiday’s Steals, he also had a huge Blocked Shot on a Cinci fast break. G.G. Goloman had a slam dunk of his own, and Ike played more minutes in the second half, added 3 more points, and had a huge Block of his own. But the most important contributor besides Ball was Alford, who ended up with 4 Three’s. He also had a fantastic Assist, and an awesome, body-control, tightly-contested lay-up. It was by far his best half in about a month, and he looked 1000 times more comfortable shooting the ball. Another good sign: While defending on a fast break, he actually defended, committing a foul (and then Lonzo blocked the shot). I love that Bryce was engaged and focused, and cared more about stopping the play than avoiding the foul. This is NOT a slam on Bryce! I am convinced he had been instructed to stay out of foul trouble, even if he had to concede some breakaway buckets. It’s hard to break these burnt-in habits, but today’s game was a great indication that this is no longer an issue.
The game’s key stat: UCLA had 21 Assists, but only 3 Turnovers. With a 7:1 Assist-to-Turnover ratio, a National Championship could be on the horizon. But first things first…
Next up is the Sweet 16, and “Kenyucky.” (That was a typo, but I liked it). The Bruins haven beaten the Wildcats twice in a row — First last year at Pauley in a stunning upset, then again in Rupp Arena earlier this year. On this Friday night, they will be playing on a theoretically “neutral” court, but make no mistake: It will be exactly the same as playing on UK’s home floor — the crowd in Memphis will be dominated by Wildcat fans. Luckily, the Lonzo Ball Bruins don’t seem affected by hostile environments, having also won at McKale this year. When you have Lonzo orchestrating the symphony, the beautiful music drowns out the crowd noise.