LOS ANGELES — For the first time in three games, UCLA looked like it was having fun.
The 23rd-ranked Bruins were flying around, dunking, crashing the boards, getting out in transition. All the weight and worry they had been carrying since the season began with an international incident in China and two close victories seemed to go away in the second half.
Jaylen Hands scored 22 points to lead three freshmen in double figures, and UCLA defeated South Carolina State 96-68 on Friday night despite a depleted roster.
Hands and fellow freshman Kris Wilkes broke the game open to start the second half for the Bruins (3-0). They scored 17 of the team’s first 19 points to extend a six-point lead to 59-44.
“Everybody looks to each other,” freshman Chris Smith said. “We just want to come out and show the fans a good time and play well as a team.”
Hands had two highlight reel dunks, one in each half. Both were generated when he stole the ball and cruised to the rim for one-handed jams.
“It was really helpful to us to get that momentum,” Hands said.
Smith added 15 points. Wilkes finished with 14 points, and senior Thomas Welsh added 13 points and 15 rebounds in the Bruins’ second game as part of the Hall of Fame Classic.
“Coming off the bench, the main thing you got to do is bring energy,” Smith said.
UCLA is playing with an eight-man roster since freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were indefinitely suspended on Wednesday after confessing to shoplifting during the trip to China last week.
Donte Wright scored 23 points, hitting six 3-pointers, to lead the Bulldogs (0-4), who kept it close in the game’s first 9 minutes.
“They shot 70 percent in the second half,” Wright said. “We just have to get back to the basics and get back to our defensive principles.”
Then the Bruins started clicking offensively and went on a 20-5 run to take a 36-23 lead. Five players scored in the spurt, with Aaron Holiday, Prince Ali and Alex Olesinski hitting 3-pointers as the Bruins ran off 12 points in a row.
The Bulldogs answered by outscoring UCLA 12-1 to close to 37-35. The Bruins got a basket and a dunk by Wilkes to lead 41-35 at halftime.
UCLA ran off 14 straight points in the second half when the Bruins made 21 of 30 shots and hit 5 of 9 3-point attempts.
Hands closed the game on a tear, scoring 12 points in the final minutes. He hit a 3-pointer and dished off to Wilkes for a dunk, too.
DOMINATING THE BOARDS
UCLA owned a 51-30 edge in rebounding, including 32-18 on the defensive glass. Olesinski added 10 rebounds.
“You can’t do that on this level, especially if you want to compete,” Bulldogs coach Murray Garvin said.
The Bruins played their first three games in seven days, including the opener in Shanghai, a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles. They’ve got a similar stretch starting Monday in Kansas City.
“We love it,” Smith said. “We like to get out there and play. Our schedule has been a little crammed, but that’s what we signed up for.”
The Bruins came in shooting 64 percent from the free throw line, not close to the 75 to 80 percent that coach Steve Alford expects. They made 12 of 24 against the Bulldogs.
“Other than the uncontested layup, it’s the easiest shot in the game,” said Alford, who was a 90 percent shooter at Indiana. “It’s about clearing your mind. If I miss one, I can’t go in a turtle shell. We got too many guys who are thinking about it and worried about it instead of having that tough approach.”
South Carolina State has lost to Wisconsin, Boston College, Yale and UCLA in its first four games by an average of 33.5 points. Picked to finish just seventh in the MEAC, the Bulldogs are playing without senior F Tashombe Riley, who is out for the season with an ankle injury. He was their top returning scorer, having averaged 11.4 points last season.
After winning its first two games by a combined eight points, UCLA got a blowout victory on its home court. All eight players scored, with the bulk of the points coming from Hands, Smith and Wilkes.
After four straight road games to open the season, South Carolina State returns home to host Central Arkansas on Tuesday. The Bears lost 106-101 in overtime at UCLA on Wednesday.
UCLA hits the road for Kansas City on Monday when the Bruins will play Creighton in the championship rounds of the Hall of Fame Classic.