LOS ANGELES — Just when UCLA had built a double-digit lead on Cal, the fourth-ranked Bruins switched into cruise control. Coach Steve Alford figured his players were tired of hearing his voice and he turned to Lonzo Ball.
The freshman who has taken college basketball by storm is quiet by nature, but Ball did some chirping to his teammates.
They listened, and the Bruins went on to win 81-71 on Thursday night.
Bryce Alford scored 16 of his 24 points in a dominant first half and TJ Leaf had 17 points and 11 rebounds for his seventh double-double in the Bruins’ fifth straight win over the Golden Bears at Pauley Pavilion. Alford hit five 3-pointers for UCLA (15-1, 2-1 Pac-12).
“I felt I should have talked a little bit earlier but fortunately we pulled it out,” said Ball, who had 14 points. “We knew we weren’t guarding right. We know offense is going to be there. We got to make sure we defend.”
Grant Mullins scored 19 points, and Ivan Rabb had 17 points and a career-high 20 rebounds for the Bears (10-5, 1-2), who went from being down by 20 with 5 1/2 minutes left to trailing by five.
“They did think this was too easy in the first half. That’s no disrespect to Cal,” the elder Alford said. “We thought it was going to be easy and we shut it down in the second half. Those are some valuable lessons to learn.”
The Bruins made 5 of 6 free throws in the final 22 seconds.
“Luckily, we did a good enough job in first half and last few minutes to pull it out,” the younger Alford said. “Lonzo came in as a very quiet guy. On the court he takes care of business. When we need him to talk he does a great job of it.”
After a close opening 5 minutes, the Bruins took over. They scored on seven straight possessions in a 16-3 run that extended their lead from one to 14 points. Alford got things going with a 3-pointer and closed the spurt with his fourth consecutive 3.
In between, Leaf and Ball put on a show for the second sellout crowd of the season. Leaf dribbled around a Cal defender and went by another for a one-handed dunk. Ball scored off his own steal before Leaf grabbed a defensive rebound and made a layup at the other end. The Bruins shot 71 percent during the spurt that kept them ahead 26-12.
Ball wasn’t done. He dunked off an alley-oop pass from Leaf in a 12-2 run that ended the half. Ball let loose with a 3-pointer from well beyond the line after dribbling the ball behind his back that made it 44-24 at the break. By then, the Bruins’ shooting had cooled to a still solid 52 percent.
“Fifteen-and-1, ain’t got no complaints,” Ball said.
California: Rabb became the first Cal player with 20 rebounds since Leon Powe had that many against USC on March 9, 2006. It was Rabb’s fourth straight game with double-digit rebounds. “I’ve always been a good rebounder, it’s what makes me motor,” he said. ... The Bears allowed 44 points in the first half, the most points they’ve given up in a half this season. ... They fell to 3-6 against ranked opponents since the start of the 2015-16 season.