By Phil Collin
Anaheim, Calif., Nov. 27, 2016 – It was heralded freshman Lonzo Ball who played beyond his years to lead UCLA to the Wooden Legacy tournament title at the Honda Center on Sunday.
What the Bruins reminded themselves of, however, was it always helps to have a couple of savvy seniors to be there when necessary.
Recovering from a shaky start, Ball had 16 points, 10 assists, five rebounds and three blocked shots and senior guards Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford took turns carrying the offensive load as UCLA scored a 74-67 victory over Texas A&M at the Honda Center. It was the Bruins’ first appearance in the event memorializing UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden.
It was a season-low scoring total for up-tempo UCLA (7-0), but they also showed some grit against a tall, physical A&M squad that has stifled opponents with its zone defense.
“That’s the irony this, we came into this tournament with everybody talking about our offense and what we’ll probably learn most is we have some work to do with our half-court offense because we’ve been in transition so much,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said. “These guys learned how to go take the win and that’s exciting. We’re still a new team but down the stretch, they were terrific.”
Hamilton got off to a hot start and scored all 17 of his points in the first half. Yet while Hamilton went scoreless in the second half, Bryce Alford bounced back from a scoreless first half to score 13 in the second period, hitting a key 3-pointer with 1:11 left and then connecting on four free throws in the final 37 seconds.
“A year ago that might have fazed us to where we can’t come close to win,” Steve Alford said. “I don’t think last year’s team could have won the Nebraska game (in the semifinals), couldn’t have won this game, so that’s progress and Isaac and Bryce are a part of that.”
Ball, who set a tournament record with 28 assists in the three games, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. Hamilton made the all-tournament team along with forward Tyler Davis of Texas A&M, forward Tim Williams of New Mexico and forward Zach LeDay of Virginia Tech.
Ball started by missing six of his first seven shots, then scored 12 points in the second half. His 3-pointer with 2:40 left helped the Bruins reclaim the lead after A&M guard Admon Gilder’s 3-pointer had given the Aggies (4-2) a brief advantage.
“Coach talked about how this is our tournament, it has our name on it, it’s the first championship we were able to get and we got it,” Ball said. “It was a good team effort. As far as the MVP, I’m grateful.
“Basketball is two halves and it helps when I have teammates and coaches staying on me, keeping me focused. I shook it off and we ended up winning.”
Freshman forward TJ Leaf added 13 points and nine rebounds for UCLA, which limited A&M to 40 percent shooting from the field.
Gilder led A&M with 17 points and Davis had 16 points and eight rebounds. Forward Tonny Trocha-Morelos had 11 points and nine rebounds, and freshmen forward Robert Williams 12 points off the bench.
Forward D.J. Hogg, who came into the game with 44 points in the first two games, was limited to six points on 4-for-18 shooting. Stifled primarily by Hamilton with some help from Ball, Hogg missed all eight of his 3-point attempts.
“UCLA showed how good they really are,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “Alford, the three guards, Ball, Hamilton really gave us problems. I thought we had some bad possessions offensively but a lot of it had to do with UCLA. I was really impressed with their poise on the perimeter. We had a hard time guarding those guys.”