PHOENIX — Nothing comes easy for UCLA these days.
With Kevin Love scoring a career-high 29 points, the Bruins nearly frittered away a 21-point halftime lead and hung on to defeat Western Kentucky 88-78 in the NCAA West Region on Thursday night.
Top-seeded UCLA (34-3) will play No. 3-seeded Xavier on Saturday for a trip to its third consecutive Final Four.
Love also had 14 rebounds. He hit 10-of-14 shots from the floor and helped rescue the Bruins for the second time in as many games.
Love wasn’t the only Bruin to notch a double-double. James Keefe had 18 points and 12 rebounds, both career highs, and Russell Westbrook had 14 points and 11 rebounds.
Tyrone Brazelton scored 31 points — 25 in the second half — and Courtney Lee added 18 for 12th-seeded Western Kentucky (29-7).
Early on, the Bruins bore little resemblance to the bunch that sweated out a two-point victory over Texas A&M in the second round, blitzing the Hilltoppers with a 23-4 run midway through the first half.
UCLA led 41-20 at halftime, but Western Kentucky wouldn’t go away. The Hilltoppers began pressing, and the Bruins started to unravel. They had 12 turnovers in the first 15 minutes of the second half.
Taking advantage of sloppy play by the Bruins, the Hilltoppers went on a 19-6 run to whittle the lead to 61-57 with 6:50 to play. Tyrone Brazelton capped the run by scoring eight unanswered points in less than a minute, on back-to-back 3-pointers and a layup.
The Bruins appeared in trouble when point guard Darren Collison fouled out — for the first time this year — with 5:39 to play.
But then Love scored from close range and Josh Shipp, an erratic long-range shooter, hit a 3-pointer to push UCLA’s lead to 68-59 with 4:30 to play.
UCLA coach Ben Howland was so desperate to stem the tide that he called his final timeout. Steadied, the Bruins did not let the Hilltoppers draw closer than six points the rest of the way.
Perhaps it was no surprise that UCLA let the scrappy Hilltoppers back in the game. The Bruins rolled into the desert on a 12-game winning streak, but they hadn’t been dominant. Five of their last eight wins had been by three points or less, and another came after they forced overtime.
The Hilltoppers had won eight straight games and reached the round of 16 for the first time since 1993, when coach Darrin Horn was a sophomore guard. At No. 12, Western Kentucky was the lowest remaining seed in the tourney, along with Villanova.
Early on, Western Kentucky looked the part of a 12th seed. The Hilltoppers came out jittery, with four turnovers in the first three minutes. And they had more turnovers (9) than field goals (6) in the first half.
Lee made two of his first 13 shots from the floor.
Things were no better at the other end, where Western Kentucky had no answer for Love.
D.J. Magley and Jeremy Evans each fouled Love in a five-second span in the first minute, and Evans went to the bench with his second foul three minutes into the game.
UCLA has had trouble generating offense recently — Love and Darren Collison scored 40 of UCLA’s 51 points in the second-round victory over Texas A&M — but that all changed during the 23-4 run midway through the first half.
Four players scored during the burst, including Shipp, who hit a 3-pointer to snap an 0-for-11 slump from beyond the arc over the last three-plus games. Western Kentucky called timeout, and several Bruins greeted a relieved Shipp on his way back to the bench.