LOS ANGELES -- No. 23 UCLA concludes a tumultuous week on Friday at Pauley Pavilion when it tips off against South Carolina State.
The Bruins (2-0) became the focus of international attention last week when three players -- LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill -- were arrested for shoplifting while in China for a season-opening game against Georgia Tech.
Coach Steve Alford announced the indefinite suspension of the three after they made a public apology on Wednesday. Later that same day, UCLA needed overtime to survive a 106-101 shootout with Central Arkansas.
Senior center Thomas Welsh, who recorded a double-double in Wednesday's win, said in his post-game interview on the UCLA IMG Radio Network that the Bruins set a preseason goal to go undefeated at Pauley Pavilion. A late Jordan Howard 3-pointer put Central Arkansas ahead 86-85 with just 3.7 seconds remaining, threatening that goal from the first game.
Guard Jaylen Hands forced overtime with a free throw in the final second, but he missed a foul shot that would have won the game in regulation. Missed free throws became a glaring issue for the Bruins, shooting 2-of-10 from the charity stripe in the game's first 38 minutes.
"When you're missing free throws, you're going to put yourself in a tough spot. That's kind of why we were in overtime, because we missed so many free throws," Welsh said. "When we get in (to practice) that's going to be an emphasis of the coaches."
UCLA's next opponent has had its own issues putting the ball in the basket, but not just at the free-throw line.
South Carolina State (0-3) failed to score more than 54 points for the third time in three tries on the season on Tuesday against Yale. The Bulldogs rank No. 345 out of 351 Division I programs in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom.com metrics, and their offensive woes have translated into defensive woes.
"Anytime you are struggling to make shots it puts tremendous pressure on you defensively," Bulldogs head coach Murray Garvin said following the Yale loss, per the South Carolina State official athletic website. "Right now the people we expected to score consistently just aren't doing it effectively."
Through three games, no Bulldog is averaging in double figures. Damani Applewhite leads South Carolina State at 8.7 points per game.
In contrast, UCLA is coming off a win in which six players scored at least 10 points. Aaron Holiday set the pace with a career-high 24 points against Central Arkansas,
"Tom (Welsh) and Aaron did the things as vets to make sure we got the win," Alford said.
Upperclassman leadership takes on added significance for UCLA in the early phases of what Alford describes as "a monster schedule," particularly with the suspensions whittling down the roster depth.
Freshmen Kris Wilkes and Hands both have made key contributions in a pair of close wins, however. Wilkes scored 20 points and grabbed 12 rebounds against Central Arkansas, and Alford lauded Hands' poise for making the game-tying free throw in regulation.
With the lineup in flux and games against Creighton, Michigan, Cincinnati and Kentucky in the coming month, UCLA needs to find the right balance with its veterans and newcomers quickly.
"We're going to go through growing pains," Alford said. "The China game was scheduled late for us. ... But our team's not about excuses, it's about growing."
No. 23 UCLA continues tough period against S.C. State
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