LAS VEGAS — Four days after his beloved grandmother passed away from complications of bone cancer, UCLA's Isaac Hamilton could not stop smiling.
A goofy grin flashed across the freshman guard's face each time he sank a jump shot during the second half of UCLA's 96-70 victory over USC in Thursday's Pac-12 quarterfinals.
Hamilton's joy was a product of more than just erupting for a career-high 36 points or helping the Bruins keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. He was most happy because he honored the memory of his grandmother Lucine the best way he could.
"I said a little prayer before the game," Hamilton said. "I knew she was watching from above. I just came out and competed and I hope she was happy with the performance.
Hamilton's smile was a welcome sight to his UCLA teammates and coaches because they know how difficult the past couple weeks have been for him. His grandmother had been sick for a while, but Lucine's health deteriorated more quickly than he expected.
Last week, she was able to tell him on the phone that she loved him. By Saturday, she was unresponsive when he visited her in person. And by Sunday, she had passed away.
Hamilton said he had a hard time going through drills in practice Sunday after his sister called with the bad news. He decided to play Thursday because he knew these are must-win games for UCLA and he believes that's what Lucine would have wanted him to do.
"She lived a wonderful life and they're such a wonderful family," UCLA coach Steve Alford said. "For him to have a game like this on the heels of her passing, that's a pretty special situation."
UCLA needs to emulate how Hamilton dealt with adversity for the rest of the weekend because its season hangs in the balance. The fourth-seeded Bruins (20-12, 11-7) likely need to defeat top-seeded Arizona in the semifinals on Friday night to make the NCAA tournament, a daunting challenge made even tougher by the potential absence of one of their two best players.
Freshman Kevon Looney, UCLA's third-leading scorer and leading rebounder, took an elbow to the face early in the first half against USC and did not return to the game. UCLA is awaiting the results of a CT scan Looney underwent Thursday before revealing the severity of the injury, but teammates said he had a black eye and his left cheek was visibly swollen.
A UCLA team with only eight available scholarship players cannot afford the loss of Looney against any opponent, let alone an Arizona team that won the conference by three games and held the Bruins to 47 points a couple weeks ago in Tucson. If Looney can't play, UCLA would likely insert freshman Gyorgy Goloman into the starting lineup, with freshman Thomas Welsh and sophomore Noah Allen the only two remaining scholarship players off the bench.
"Obviously that would hurt if he's not there," sophomore guard Bryce Alford said. "He's one of our best players if not our best player. For him to be down, that hurts us. Hopefully we can get him back for tomorrow, but if not our bench was great today. We've got some guys who can step in if he's not available."
The importance of having Looney is heightened by UCLA's tenuous position on the NCAA tournament bubble. The Bruins beat Utah at home and went 3-1 against fellow Pac-12 bubble teams Oregon and Stanford, but the only other top 100 victory they posted all season was against Long Beach State back in November.
While most mock brackets still have UCLA outside the field of 68 entering Friday's game, Steve Alford is hopeful that's not correct. The UCLA coach believes a victory over Arizona would secure a bid for the Bruins, but he insists he has faith his team would land a bid even if it loses to the Wildcats.
"I don't know if it's necessarily a have-to-play-in game," Alford said. "You approach it that way, but our resume looks pretty good and I like what we've been able to do in a league like the Pac-12. We've been very consistent the last two months and we're playing our best basketball."
It would certainly help UCLA immensely if Isaac Hamilton stayed as searing hot as he was Thursday.
Hamilton sank 13 of 17 shots against USC, pulling up from distance when the Trojans left him free and taking it to the rim when they bothered to get a hand in his face. His 36 points were the most by a UCLA player since Dijon Thompson scored 39 against Arizona State in 2005.
"When he's shooting like that, you've got to get him the ball," Tony Parker said. "He was taking a lot of shots, he was reaching in his bag and he was pulling out some new moves. He looked like a 2K player out there."
Though Hamilton admitted his mind drifted to his grandmother from time to time during the game, playing basketball was also a nice distraction. Shattering his previous career high of 21 left him no choice but to smile for the first time in days.
"When you hit a couple shots in a row and you start feeling it, you've got to laugh at that point," Hamilton said. "I've been through it in high school. When it keeps you falling in, you've got to laugh. You feel free."
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