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Bryce Alford gets tearful sendoff in No. 3 UCLA’s Senior Night win

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LOS ANGELES — Bryce Alford lifted his warmup jersey to wipe his watery eyes. His father and coach, Steve Alford, had tears, too.

The third-ranked Bruins were an emotional mess before the game tipped off on Senior Night. It showed in the early going until they got their act together in the second half to beat Washington State 77-68 on Saturday night for their ninth straight win and a 16-1 finish at home.

“No one really warned me it was going to be like that,” the younger Alford said. “I was not ready for that at all. Kind of got me out of rhythm. The amount of emotion kind of drains you before the game and it’s hard to refocus.”

The Bruins shot 44 percent, a rare struggle this season, and didn’t clamp down until a 14-0 run over the final 10 minutes to earn their 28th victory, tying the 2007-08 team for most in a regular season.

Aaron Holiday scored 16 points, Isaac Hamilton added 14 and Thomas Welsh had 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Bruins (28-3, 15-3 Pac-12), who played without injured TJ Leaf. He wore a walking boot to protect his sprained left ankle and his No. 22 jersey over a gray hoodie while sitting on the bench.

Lonzo Ball had 12 points and 14 assists to break Gary Payton’s freshman Pac-12 assist record in what many believe was his last game at Pauley Pavilion. The touted freshman is expected to leave early for the NBA draft.

“I just felt for the seniors. They’ve been here the last four years. I’ve been here one year,” Ball said. “So far, I’m not looking back at it. There’s a lot of season left.”

Bryce Alford finished with 13 points and made two 3-pointers, tying Jason Kapono’s school career record with 317.

Charles Callison led the Cougars (13-17, 6-12) with 25 points. Josh Hawkinson added 16 points and 14 rebounds, becoming the school’s career rebounding leader with 1,003.

“We hung with them for three-fourths of the game and we just ran out of energy the last eight minutes,” Hawkinson said. “We just let down our guard and I think that helped them win.”

Hawkinson scored six straight points and Callison hit a 3-pointer that put the Cougars ahead 47-44. The Bruins missed eight of 10 shots during a 4 1/2-minute stretch and trailed 51-50.

Bryce Alford made a 3-pointer to launch the 14-0 run that gave UCLA a 64-51 lead. Ike Anigbogu came up with a big block of WSU’s Robert Franks as he was going in for what appeared to be a wide-open dunk.

“We just missed a lot of our shots,” Washington State coach Ernie Kent said. “If we were to have made half of them, that’s the difference in the game.”

Callison scored 13 of the Cougars’ final 17 points while the Bruins went 3 of 5 from the free throw line in the closing minutes.

The Cougars closed the first half on a 16-9 run to trail 35-34. Alford missed two 3-point attempts, airballing the first one, and Hamilton’s layup at the buzzer was declared no good.

BIG PICTURE

Washington State: The Cougars head into postseason play having lost two in a row and seven of nine and don’t figure to hang around long. They tied for ninth with Stanford in the league standings, but the Cardinal earned the No. 9 seed by virtue of their win over WSU.

UCLA: The Bruins enter next week’s Pac-12 Tournament as the league’s hottest team, but they could run into No. 6 Oregon and No. 7 Arizona in Las Vegas. They lost to both teams during the regular season as well as crosstown rival USC.

LEAF’S RETURN

The elder Alford said he expects Leaf to play in the Pac-12 Tournament. By then, the freshman will have had a week’s worth of rest after injuring his ankle last Wednesday against Washington.

SENIOR NIGHT

The court was crowded when the younger Alford was introduced. In addition to his coach-father and mother Tanya, brother Kory, sister Kayla, grandparents Sam and Sharan Alford, his uncle and his girlfriend were on hand. Also bidding farewell to Pauley were seniors Hamilton and Jerrold Smith, who has played a total of 33 minutes in his career.

TRIBUTE

The 1966-67 UCLA team that went 30-0 and won the national championship under coach John Wooden was honored at halftime on its 50th anniversary. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lucius Allen and team captain Mike Warren were on hand. They were part of Wooden’s second undefeated team.

UP NEXT

Washington State: The 10th-seeded Cougars will play Colorado in an opening-round game at the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

UCLA: The third-seeded Bruins will play either USC or Washington in the tournament quarterfinals Thursday.

Texas Tech forward Zach Smith returns to school after withdrawing from NBA Draft

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Texas Tech forward Zach Smith will return for his senior season, the school confirmed on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 forward is one of the most intriguing athletes in college basketball as he’s been a double-figure scorer for the Red Raiders the past two seasons. As a junior, Smith put up 12.1 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game as he shot 50 percent from the field.

Three-point shooting was something that Smith improved dramatically last season as he increased it to 39 percent in a small sample size. If Smith can continue to show that he’s a perimeter shooting threat then he could be an ideal three-and-d candidate at the pro level.

By returning to Texas Tech, Smith gives head coach Chris Beard a potential all-league candidate who should be counted on to be a double-double threat next season.

 

Missouri lands five-star forward Jontay Porter

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Missouri has another member of the Porter family in the fold as forward Jontay Porter officially committed to the Tigers on Monday night.

Following in the footsteps of older brother Michael Porter Jr., and father Michael Porter Sr., Jontay is currently a member of the Class of 2018 who is rumored to be reclassifying to the Class of 2017.

A 6-foot-10 forward who was recently elevated to five-star status on Rivals.com, Porter is having a monster spring in the Nike EYBL with MoKan Elite. Porter has been one of the best players in the league, as he’s putting up 18.1 points and 12.7 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range.

If Jontay is able to join Missouri next season then he gives the Tigers another intriguing piece to play alongside his brother Michael, who is good enough to be a potential No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Although Jontay isn’t the go-to player that his brother is, he could be a very effective SEC role player early in his career, as his ability to rebound and stretch the floor makes him an extremely intriguing piece on the floor.

Kevin Stallings is a tone-deaf clown

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Pitt guard Cameron Johnson is the most coveted transfer in college basketball this offseason.

The 6-foot-8 Johnson is coming off of a strong campaign with the Panthers in which he put up 11.9 points per game while shooting 42 percent from three-point range.

Not only is Johnson a proven double-figure scorer in a league like the ACC, but he’s eligible to play right away thanks to his graduation from Pitt. Johnson graduating from school in three years and missing one season due to injury also makes him the rare graduate transfer who has two seasons of eligibility remaining. So, not only can Johnson come in and make an immediate impact, but he’s also able to stay for another year after.

This sort of thing almost never happens, let alone with a 6-foot-8 shooter that could sway the national title race.

It’s why blueblood programs like Kentucky and UCLA are in hot pursuit of Johnson. It’s why another ACC school, reigning national champion North Carolina, is also intrigued by Johnson being on the market.

Except Johnson won’t be allowed to attend North Carolina, or any other school in the ACC, without first sitting out a season and losing one season of eligibility. At least that’s how things currently stand thanks to Pitt’s power over Johnson — despite Johnson graduating from the school and having no more formal educational ties to the school.

Here’s what Pitt said on the matter in a release to the News-Observer.

“Cameron Johnson and his father were informed of our policy as well as the appeals process when they elected to seek to transfer. They went through our transfer appeals process and were granted permission to contact ACC schools; however, the committee upheld the policy to limit immediate eligibility within the conference.

If Cameron were to transfer within the ACC, he would be eligible to receive financial aid immediately but would have to sit out a year of competition due to standard NCAA transfer regulations. Throughout this process, we have remained consistent to our department policy and we will continue to do so.”

Pitt head coach Kevin Stallings had a peculiar interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that was published about two weeks ago. During the interview, of which the full transcript was made public, Stallings went in-depth about Johnson’s transfer and the current state of college basketball. Stallings also made remarks about how the media holds programs accountable for trying to bully certain players.

Here’s a small sample of what Stallings had to say.

“But the unexpected departures are the things that are becoming more common than uncommon in college basketball. You have guys constantly trying to transfer up. You have guys going pro that have never played a minute of college basketball after they’ve sat out a year at a school. You have guys asking out of their letters of intent with frequency. We’re dealing in a landscape in college basketball right now that is as probably as difficult and peculiar as it’s ever been. It used to be if a kid signed his letter of intent and he wanted out of it, you had to play a year of junior-college ball to get out of it.

“The media didn’t basically force institutions to let people break a binding agreement. It’s kind of interesting now the media tries to put so much pressure on programs, whether it be athletic directors or coaches, saying ‘Well, the coaches can move.’ Well, hey, guess what? I’ve got a great big buyout in my deal that prevents me from moving. I’ve got something in my contract saying I can’t go to another league school. It’s not as easy for coaches to go. That’s everyone’s rationale — ‘Well, the coaches can leave.’ We’re dealing in an environment right now that is as fluid as it’s ever been. It’s just where we’re at in the whole thing with the unexpected departures.”

Stallings makes some sound points–particularly about coaches having buyouts and the general perception of coaching changes in basketball.

But Kevin Stallings mostly sounds like a tone-deaf clown here.

Nobody is going to feel sorry for a millionaire coach who willingly makes the decision to change jobs.

Nobody.

Especially if that same millionaire is comparing a choice to change jobs to the transfer decisions of unpaid student-athletes. It’s even more laughable now that Stallings is holding power over an unpaid student-athlete from going to play at another school because of purely basketball reasons.

Pitt and Stallings need to do the right thing and release Johnson to play at any school right away because Johnson has already done everything he needs to do to appease the program.

Things changed dramatically for Johnson during his three years at Pitt. He became one of the ACC’s better players and earned his degree. Johnson held up his end of the bargain when he signed his Letter of Intent.  Now Johnson just wants the chance improve his basketball future by playing with one of the nation’s elite programs.

Stallings can blame the current state of college basketball, the media, or whoever he wants for Johnson’s transfer from Pitt.

But Stallings also has to realize that he’s going to be the one who looks stupid if he continues to leave these restrictions in place for Johnson. Stallings already has a history of this sort of thing when he placed transfer restrictions on former player Sheldon Jeter. If Stallings continues to uphold transfer restrictions on Johnson, then he’s going to gain a permanent reputation in recruiting during a time when players continue to gain more freedom over their basketball futures.

If Johnson does happen to go to an ACC school like North Carolina, it’s not as if Pitt has any sort of competitive roster that is going to be fighting the Tar Heels for league supremacy during the next two seasons.

Stallings and Pitt need to just bite the bullet, let Johnson have his freedom, and hope it doesn’t come back to hurt them for one or two seasons in ACC play.

It surely beats the alternative of being labeled a head coach who limits player freedom after six players left Pitt during a single offseason. That type of burn lasts a lot longer than two years.

Presbyterian hires Wofford assistant Dustin Kerns as new head coach

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Presbyterian finally has its new head coach as the program is set to hire Wofford assistant coach Dustin Kerns, a source confirmed to NBCSports.com.

Kerns has been an assistant at Wofford for the past seven years during his second stint with the program. Also spending six seasons as an assistant coach at Santa Clara, the Tennessee native is getting his first shot at running his own program.

Finishing last in the Big South last season at 5-25 and 1-17 in conference play, Presbyterian is trying to rebuild after head coach Gregg Nibert resigned in April. Nibert was the head coach of the Blue Hens for 28 seasons, so Kerns is going to be a completely fresh start for the program.

Tennessee lands impact graduate transfer James Daniel

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Tennessee and head coach Rick Barnes earned a commitment from one of the top graduate transfers on the market on Monday when Howard guard James Daniel pledged to the Volunteers.

The 6-foot-0 Daniel was the nation’s leading scorer at 27.1 points per game his junior season in 2015-16. Daniel played in only two games last season as a left ankle injury caused him to have surgery.

With nearly 2,000 career points to his name, Daniel gives Tennessee an additional perimeter scorer who should come in and make an immediate impact right away. While Howard has low shooting percentages and a high usage rate during his time at Howard, it’ll be interesting to see how the year off and more talented teammates will alter his game.

If Howard can be a more efficient scorer in his final season, then he has a chance to be one of the better players for the Volunteers this season.