T.J. Leaf scored 23 points to lead five players in double-figures as No. 3 UCLA picked up an impressive-looking win over No. 14 Kent State on Friday evening, 97-80.
Thomas Welsh went for 16 points and Aaron Holiday added 15 points and 10 assists for the Bruins, but the win wasn’t quite as promising as the final score might indicate.
The Bruins jumped out to an 18-2 lead in the first five minutes of the game and were never truly threatened by the Golden Flashes, but the Bruins were also far from convincing in their win. The issue with this team all season long has been their defense — they have a habit of only playing when they decide that they want to play — and that reared its ugly head again on Friday. Kent State more or less got whatever they wanted for the final 10 minutes of the first half and the first 10 minutes of the second half.
The Golden Flashes cut UCLA’s lead to eight points at the half, and they trimmed that lead to just five points midway through the second half, as the Bruins watch Jaylin Walker go at Bryce Alford and Jimmy Hall go to work in the paint. As a team, they gave up 15 offensive rebounds.
With a path to the Final Four that is going to include 30-5 Cincinnati, the Wichita State-Kentucky winner and, in all likelihood, a game against North Carolina, that kind of an effort on the defensive end of the floor simply is not going to cut it.
So here’s the question, which is the same question we’ve asked all year long with this group: Will UCLA be able to turn that defense up a notch in the games where they can’t simply rely on being able to put up 97 points and coast to a win? It worked at Kentucky, at Arizona and at home against Oregon. It didn’t work against Arizona in Pauley or the Pac-12 tournament, and it didn’t work at Oregon.