TEMPE, Ariz. – Fifth-ranked UCLA’s game plan was to pound the ball inside against Arizona State’s smaller lineup, and it worked to perfection.
The Bruins conceded the Sun Devils’ 3-point shooting but were too much of a force in the paint, with 6-foot-10 TJ Leaf leading the way with 25 points in the Bruins’ 87-75 victory Thursday night.
The Bruins (25-3, 12-3 Pac-12) won their sixth straight game going into Saturday’s crucial showdown with fourth-ranked Arizona. Aaron Holiday added 17 points off the bench and center Thomas Welsh had eight points and 11 rebounds in 18 minutes.
“Whatever the game plan is, full force on it,” Leaf said. “We know February sets up March. We just want to be playing our best ball come March.”
Torian Graham led Arizona State with 28 points and Kodi Justice added 19. The Sun Devils hit 14 3-pointers but were outrebounded, 49-30.
The Bruins’ size made a difference throughout, with UCLA capitalizing on plenty of second-chance opportunities and taking advantage of ASU’s four-guard lineup on both ends.
“We really wanted to get the ball inside, because we knew, especially if they weren’t going to go to their bench and they weren’t going to play big,” Bruins coach Steve Alford said, “we thought we could score at the rim.”
The Sun Devils (13-16, 6-10) scored the first seven points of the second half and got a near-capacity crowd on its feet when Shannon Evans II made a fastbreak layup to trim UCLA’s lead to 45-43.
Evans’ dunk made it 50-49 at the 15:22 mark, but UCLA went on a 14-5 run capped by a 3-pointer by Holiday off an offensive rebound. The Bruins had a 31-7 edge in second-chance points and 50-22 in points in the paint.
Holiday hit a 3 for a 74-60 lead with 7:29 to play and the Sun Devils couldn’t rally again.
Arizona State led 14-10 6 minutes into the game, thanks in part to UCLA’s early turnovers. But the Bruins hit five straight shots, three for freshman big man Ike Anigbogu inside.
“Ike, that’s the best I’ve seen him play on offense. Which he does in practice but that’s the best in a game he’s played,” Holiday said.
Anigbogu’s dunk with 6:16 to go in the first half gave UCLA a 29-21 lead, and ASU was forced to rely on perimeter shots. The Bruins went ahead 40-27 on a follow by Welsh with 3:18 left, and led by as many as 14 before finishing the half with a 45-36 lead.
The Sun Devils didn’t make a first-half substitution and got 17 points from Graham, who hit four of his team’s seven 3-pointers in the first 20 minutes.
UCLA: The third-place Bruins can still finish first or second in the Pac-12, but need a win at No. 4 Arizona in one of the nation’s marquee matchups this weekend in Tucson, for starters. They will likely have to win out and get help from the teams that play current first-place Arizona and second-place Oregon to surpass the Wildcats and No. 6 Ducks. Either way, UCLA looks bound for a favorable seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils dropped to 0-7 against Top 25 opponents this season, and still have one more to go in No. 4 Arizona on March 4.
UCLA: Anigbogu scored a career-high 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. … The Bruins have won all six games they have played in February.
ARIZONA STATE: Graham has 11 20-point games this season and three in his last four. … Obinna Oleka recorded his 14th double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds.
UCLA freshman sensation Lonzo Ball finished with a season-low four points, well under his per-game average of 16.9. Ball, UCLA’s leading scorer this season, also missed a couple of minutes in the first half to get his right ankle checked, briefly returning to the locker room. He returned to action just before halftime and ended up with 11 rebounds and five assists.
“He’s fine,” Alford said. “It’s Lonzo Ball. He’ll be there full force on Saturday, I’m almost positive.”
UCLA is at No. 4 Arizona on Saturday, then comes home for the final two games of the regular season against the Washington schools.
Arizona State plays host to USC on Sunday, the second-to-last home of the regular season.
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