As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Lonzo Ball walked to one corner of the court and bent over, gripping his shorts. Bryce Alford hugged his older brother Kory, his college career over.
The team that had trampled others for nearly five months got overrun at the worst possible time, UCLA’s defense picked apart in the second half by the same Kentucky players the Bruins had vanquished earlier this season.
The third-seeded Bruins were no match for the second-seeded Wildcats on Friday night at FedExForum, an 86-75 defeat in an NCAA tournament South Regional semifinal serving as an unhappy conclusion to a mostly joyous season.
“It was just a hell of a ride and it sucks to come to an end like this,” UCLA center Thomas Welsh said after having to watch the final 5 minutes 58 seconds from the bench after fouling out.
The Wildcats moved on while Ball confirmed he was leaving for the NBA, where one or more of his Bruins teammates could join him. But UCLA appears to be keeping its coach after Steve Alford told The Times he would stay with the Bruins next season rather than head home to Indiana to fill the Hoosiers’ vacancy.
There’s still work to be done after UCLA (31-5) extended its championship drought to 22 years, the team known for ball movement becoming sloppy and stagnant, its 13 turnovers nearly matching its 16 assists.
“I didn’t make enough plays for my team and you can put that one on me,” said Ball, whose 10 points and eight assists were more than offset by Kentucky counterpart De’Aaron Fox’s 39 points and four assists.
The Wildcats (32-5) will play top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday in the regional final after the Tar Heels defeated Butler in the other regional semifinal and Fox nearly beat the Bruins by himself, teammate Malik Monk’s 21 points also greatly helping the cause.
Fox buried UCLA with an assortment of floating and running jumpers and layups, making 13 of 20 shots while missing his only three-point attempt.
“If we had to do it all over again, I don’t know if we’d change our game plan,” Bryce Alford said of the way the Bruins wanted to defend Fox. “He was just phenomenal tonight.”
UCLA shot 63.0% in the second half only to watch its halftime deficit grow from three points into double digits. The reason was Kentucky’s glut of easy baskets and the Bruins’ surplus of turnovers after having committed only nine combined in their previous two NCAA games.
Welsh sat for a long stretch midway through the second half after picking up his fourth foul and then collected his fifth shortly thereafter. He finished with nine points and seven rebounds in only 18 minutes.
UCLA’s TJ Leaf and Isaac Hamilton scored 17 points apiece and Bryce Alford had 13, but the Bruins didn’t receive their usual balance, only four players scoring in double figures for a team that averages six players reaching that threshold.
“It’s just a missed opportunity,” said UCLA guard Aaron Holiday, who had five points, four assists and three turnovers, “because we’re such a great team and we work so well together.”
UCLA finished four wins short of Ball’s stated goal of a national championship after a third-place finish in the Pac-12 Conference and a semifinal loss in the conference tournament, which might be considered unfulfilled potential for such a talented group.
“Obviously, it didn’t end how we wanted,” said Leaf, who scored only four points after halftime. “We wanted it to end cutting down the nets and that didn’t happen.”
Steve Alford fell to 0-4 in regional semifinal games, including three losses with UCLA. His Bruins also dropped to 1-1 against Kentucky this season after having beaten the Wildcats by five points in December at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
Now the Bruins must ponder a future that could include a complete transformation of their roster. Leaf could join Ball in the NBA after one college season because he’s widely projected as a potential lottery selection. Welsh, Holiday and Ike Anigbogu also have decisions to make about their futures. Leaf, Welsh and Holiday said they had not made up their minds whether they would declare for the NBA draft or return to UCLA.
“I still have to go talk to my family about it,” Leaf said. “I know I love this place with everything in me.”
The Bruins expect to bring in a six-man recruiting class ranked No. 2 nationally that will include McDonald’s All-Americans Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, not to mention Ball’s younger brother LiAngelo. The influx of talent could largely offset even widespread departures, but it will be difficult to replicate the festive, high-scoring style of the team that just played its last game.
“It was always fun,” Holiday said. “We’d get out and run like every kid dreams of, just getting out and running and shooting threes.”
|UCLA's TJ Leaf walks off the court after the Bruins' 86-75 loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament on March 24. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)|
Lonzo Ball says he's played his last game for UCLA; NBA is next
MEMPHIS — Lonzo Ball is off to the NBA.
The freshman phenom said the loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 was his last game for UCLA, confirming what his father has been saying for months. Ball is expected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft.
“Great. One word, if I could describe it, would be great,” Ball said after the game, which Kentucky won 86-75. “The relationships I built, can’t nobody take that away from me.”
Ball finishes as UCLA’s single-season leader in assists, with 274. He averaged 14.5 points per game on 55% shooting. But his final game in a UCLA uniform was a quiet one, as he was outplayed by Kentucky’s freshmen stars De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
Ball had 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting and eight assists. Fox had a career-high 39 while Monk scored 14 of his 21 in the second half.
“Very difficult guarding them two. They’re two of the best players in the country,” Ball said. “The pick and roll with Fox is a tough cover and Malik, when he gets hot, he’s hard to guard.”
Still, Ball said he leaves without regrets.
“Not going to say it’s a disappointment,” he said. “Great year, I enjoyed all the guys, all the staff. Unfortunately we lost. I didn’t make enough plays for my team.”
While Ball’s talent is undeniable, he’s become something of a polarizing figure because of his father, LaVar. LaVar Ball has said his son is better than two-time NBA MVP Steph Curry, and also claimed that he could have beaten Michael Jordan one-on-one back in their playing days.
LaVar Ball also said his son would only play for the Lakers. It just so happened that Magic Johnson, the team’s director of basketball operations, and general manager Rob Pelinka were on hand for Friday night’s game.
“He’s just a very special talent, and he’s going to go on and have a phenomenal career,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Friday night. “I’ve said it from Day One: In my mind, he’s the No. 1 draft pick.”
Lonzo Ball wasn't sharp, and Twitter users take aim
Freshman star Lonzo Ball scored only 10 points in UCLA's loss to Kentucky on Friday night, far short of the 39 scored by Wildcat counterpart De'Aaron Fox.