Sunday was the fourth straight day with nothing but back-to-back great basketball games on the tube, with the slate kicking off at noon (if you’re on the East Coast) and finishing about 12 hours later, when UCLA put down Cincinnati to claim the final spot in the Sweet 16. If you tapped out before the final half of the first weekend, then you 1) are a reasonable person and 2) missed a helluva second-half outing from UCLA star freshman Lonzo Ball.
Ball and UCLA’s offense struggled to find consistent success in the opening period. The entire Bearcats starting backcourt stands over 6-foot-3, and that helped them to hold opponents to 38 percent shooting from the field this season. Through the first 20 minutes, Ball and UCLA’s usually terrific offense were disrupted by Cincinnati’s length and lockdown perimeter defense, and it was a sight to behold. The Bruins shot just 28.6 percent from behind the arc and 37.5 percent from the field—those numbers are typically 40.6 and 52.1, respectively. Along with forward Thomas Welsh, Ball led the team with seven points, hitting one of his three treys; T.J. Leaf was scoreless on five shots and dealt with early foul trouble, earning him a spot on the bench at the 10-minute mark.
Cincinnati entered halftime up three and must have been feeling pretty good—the Bearcats were shooting 50 percent from the field and 66 percent from long range, with their own self-inflicted errors (eight turnovers) allowing UCLA to keep the game close. Guard Kevin Johnson put on a show, scoring 11 points, and Cincinnati looked like it could actually beat the Bruins if they could just grind them down for another 20 minutes.
Alas, Mick Cronin’s date with Kentucky was dashed in a hurry, as the Bruins woke the hell up after the break. After holding an offense that averages 90.1 points per game to just 30 first-half points, the dam burst for Cincy, as UCLA and Ball found their stroke and kicked the shit out of the Bearcats throughout the final 20.
Ball retook his position as the show-runner of the best offense in the college game, scoring another 11 points and dishing out nine assists in the second half; he had zero in the first half. The freshman waited less than two minutes to kickstart his near 20-minute double-double, finding Leaf inside for his first assist and the big man’s first bucket of the game. Ball would go on to set up four of Leaf’s five second-half field goals.
Two possessions later, he found guard and fellow sharpshooter Isaac Hamilton, who knocked down one of his two treys of the night to give UCLA a four-point advantage, its biggest lead since the 17:52-mark in the first half:
Cincinnati managed to retake a 47-46 lead three minutes later on a Jarron Cumberland layup, but Ball snatched the lead back for good, nailing a step-back, NBA-range trey.
He stepped into another three on the next trip down the court, hitting again from NBA range, pushing the lead to five, which was as close as the Bearcats would get to the Sweet 16 for the rest of the game. What followed was blur of activity from Ball, during which he dissected the Bearcats’ defense and found his teammates for easy dunks and three-pointers. Take your pick.
There’s the Ike Anigbogu dunk:
The Gyorgy Goloman dunk:
And another Leaf dunk:
Ball finished the night with 18 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, and two steals against one of the most sound defensive squads in the tournament. John Calipari has a guy in Malik Monk that shoot with Ball and another in De’Aaron Fox that can dish like him, but the fact remains: There is no player left in this tournament quite like Ball. There are times when the hype surrounding him can start feel exhausting—thanks, LaVar!—but then you watch him snuff out a solid team like Cincinnati in 20 easy minutes, and it suddenly feels like the hype doesn’t do him justice. College fans, enjoy him as for as long as you have left. NBA fans, get ready.