TJ Leaf scored 23 points and Thomas Welsh 16 for UCLA. Aaron Holliday added 15 points and 11 assists for the Bruins, who face No. 6 seed Cincinnati in the second round on Sunday in what should be a pressure-packed and entertaining game.
"If you lose, you're done until next year, so that makes it a lot more pressure on you," Leaf said.
Kent State (22-14) appeared shell shocked in its first NCAA Tournament since 2008, falling into a deep early hole. The Golden Flashes, who beat the top three seeds in the MAC Tournament, showed a bit of resiliency by fighting back, keeping the mighty Bruins close until late.
Jaylin Walker had 23 points and Jimmy Hall Jr. added 20 for Kent State.
"Couldn't be more proud of our guys in terms of how we fought the entire game and during the season we had this year," Kent State coach Rob Senderoff said.
On a day of upsets in the NCAA Tournament — namely over No. 6 seeds — Kent State was hoping to pull off the biggest one of the tournament. The Golden Flashes know a bit about NCAA upsets; this is the 15th anniversary of the 2002 Kent State team that reached the Elite Eight.
The Bruins appeared as if they weren't going to give them much of a shot, dominating at both ends.
UCLA held Kent State to 1-of-11 shooting to open and raced out to a 16-2 lead behind Lonzo Ball and Leaf.
Ball had 10 points in the first 10 minutes and Leaf had 16 by halftime as the Bruins stretched the lead to 17.
Once the Golden Flashes found their bearings, they started to fight back, whittling away at UCLA's lead.
By the time halftime arrived, they were back within striking distance, down 47-39.
"Where we weren't poised is when we got up 16 in the first half and kind of let up," Alford said. "Our shot selection wasn't the best."
The Golden Flashes continued their momentum surge to start the half, trimming the lead to four on Jalen Avery's 3-pointer.