UCLA beat Washington State, 80-71, in Pauley Pavilion Wednesday, and the game had perhaps the biggest swings of any in recent memory.
UCLA was up by 6. Down by 11. Then up by 13. After losing the first half by 8 points, it won the second half by 17.
UCLA scored 20 points in the first 8 ½ minutes. Then it scored 6 points for the next 10 minutes. Then in the last 21 ½ minutes, it scored 56 points.
It's funny how this UCLA team does this, too. It's the equivalent of an emotional little toddler; if a few things are going well, it gets excited and happy, but if a few things go wrong, it gets dejected and pouts. And just a few little things can set off either mood swing – one or two missed shots or getting burned on a backdoor make it go into the tank, but then a couple of consecutive threes and it's playing with newfound energy.
This game hinged a great deal on Washington State switching to a man defense in the first half just about the time Tyler Lamb had made a great play with a steal on the defensive end and then, on the offensive end, drove around a screen easily and hit a pull-up jumper with space. That made the score 18-12, and Washington State's head coach Ken Bone could easily see that UCLA was slicing up his zone defense. He had been alternating defenses a bit, and UCLA was getting open looks on the outside and getting easy touches inside. It started the game converting very quickly and efficiently on its first three possessions, and shot 6 for 10 in those first 6 minutes or so. It was a great move by Bone to then go to the man defense because, after UCLA scored its 20th point, it then didn't score for over three minutes. After one basket, it went another 4 ½ minutes without scoring. The problem was, while UCLA went cold, annoying WSU kept scoring, going on a 17-2 run over the course of those 7 ½ minutes, and 21-4 over 10 ½ minutes to go up by 11.
It was really the combination of WSU going strictly man, and Josh Smith having to sit because of foul trouble. We've said all season that when Smith is in the game and getting touches in the post, he's a difference-maker, in so many aspect of the game. When WSU made its big run, Smith was on the bench, and UCLA just doesn't have that added dimension to its offense.
The stats during that drought were shocking. UCLA shot 2 of 16, which is 12.5%, while it allowed WSU to shoot about 60%. It went 8 ½ minutes with only three rebounds, getting our-rebounded 9-3 in that time, and it went 11 minutes without an offensive rebound. It committed 6 turnovers in about 10 minutes, which would be the equivalent of 24 for the game.
Against the man D, and without Smith, everything shut down offensively for UCLA; the screens were poor, the cuts were slow, the passer looked late and the passes weren't there. It forced UCLA into turnovers and taking bad shots. WSU, mostly, packed in its man defense, collapsing in the paint to deny any entry passes, and that kept UCLA merely passing the ball around the perimeter and then desperately taking bad shots. In the first half, it went 2 for 11 from three, and both the threes were made by Malcolm Lee, with the shots kind of framing the drought. Lee hit the first three on UCLA's first possession and hit the second three on UCLA's last possession, and the Bruins went 0-for-9 from three in between. It was really a brilliant tactical move by Bone, playing a man defense with zone principles, and taking away UCLA's ability to get a touch in the paint, which it was clearly directed to do, and that stymied UCLA's offense.
UCLA Coach Ben Howland was evasive in the post-game press conference about any adjustments he made at halftime. The players said that the difference was this close-knit group talked at halftime and got on the same page. But I have to believe Howland made some adjustments and just doesn't want to discuss his tactics publicly, because UCLA shifted its offensive focus in the second half immediately. Instead of trying futilely to pass the ball into the paint, it took advantage of the space WSU was giving UCLA's perimeter players and penetrated. The Bruins then found either easy mid-rangers or it allowed them to kick out the ball to an open shooter from three. Then, with open shooters making their threes, Washington State was forced to extend its defense some, and that opened up the middle for touches in the paint with, Smith, again being the difference-maker. UCLA looked like a different team executing against the man defense in the second half, as if they had suddenly taken a Man Offense Pill. When UCLA had a flurry of scoring, punctuated by three three-pointers by Lazeric Jones, Lee and Tyler Honeycutt, it went up 49-43, out-scoring Wazzu 20-6 in the first 7 minutes of the first half.
During that drought in the second 10 minutes of the first half, UCLA had turned over the ball or allowed an easy transition basket on the other end, and you could the team collectively slump and lose energy. But when it went on that run to start the second half it was as if the team got a collective shot of adrenalin. UCLA made its initial second-half push with Honeycutt, Josh Smith, Jones, Lee and Brendan Lane on the floor, mostly because Reeves Nelson had collected his 3rd foul. Those five injected the initial energy on both sides of the court, not only converting on offense but getting stops on defense. But then when Smith, who was also in foul trouble himself, came out and Nelson came in, Nelson sustained that energy. He made a living on the offensive glass, working hard to get offensive rebounds and putbacks or fouls, or both.
Lee has to be recognized as the player of the game, scoring 21 points and playing good defense on WSU's Klay Thompson. Thompson finished with 26 points, but a quiet 12 and 3-for-9 shooting in the second half. Whether it was by design or not, Lee's on-ball defense in the second half tightened up, forcing Thompson to put the ball on the floor. He'd continually take it to the hoop only to have a shot altered by UCLA's help defense, or by Lee who was harassing him the entire way. Thompson, a deadly outside shooter, took only one three-pointer in the second half and missed it. Lee, too, has to be given credit for being the guy who doesn't have mood swings but plays hard a vast majority of the time.
Nelson finished with a double-double (21/11) and generally played well. He had a few defensive lapses, which are his norm, and he went into his standard lull in the first half, but then emerged with energy, especially on the offensive glass in the second half.
Honeycutt was also the UCLA roller-coaster mascot in this game. In the first half he had 2 points, 3 rebounds, 1 block and 0 assists and was pretty much non-existent. In the second half he had 12 points, 6 rebounds, 3 blocks and 4 assists and looked like a completely different player. Perhaps it was shaking off the rust from sitting out a game because of the shoulder injury. Honeycutt, to his credit, while UCLA was going through its first-half drought, was visibly irritated and picked up his effort and then got on track immediately in the second half.
While Lee was the game MVP, the title might be shared by Jones, who had a double-double himself, with 10 points and 11 assists, against just 1 turnover. If you're doling out credit for learning how to play within himself and doing what he needs to do for the team to win, Jones gets a huge amount. He very rarely now makes a clear mistake or makes a bad decision, and doesn't take poor shots. He's now comfortable in the offense so that, even though he's not a great natural passer, he knows where his shooters should be. He also, as his confidence has grown, is easily the most reliable outside shooter on the team (in fact, Howland needs to run some plays to free up Jones). He's shooting 41% from three on the season, and is 5 for 10 in his last 2 games. He also plays with consistent effort on defense, as he did in this game.
Smith, who was in foul trouble and played just 17 minutes, had 8 points and 6 rebounds and, again, just his presence made the difference. When he touches the ball inside UCLA's offense flows. He still has to be more assertive in taking the ball to the basket. The refs luckily complied in the second half; having called very few fouls in the first half, they were calling everything in the second half, practically on every possession, which enabled Howland to sub in Smith on offense and out on defense.
Tyler Lamb provided a very strong 12 minutes, making a couple of key baskets.
Also, if you're giving out credit, a big amount has to go to Howland. Even though he won't acknowledge any adjustments at the half, his team clearly played with a different tactical approach and, just as important, more focus in the second half. He also was very good at managing the foul trouble of both Nelson and Smith down the stretch. Whether it was by design or not, UCLA's defense was far more effective in the second half by an improvement on help defense. UCLA doesn't want dribble drives into the lane, but when its bigs provide good help it's perhaps UCLA's most effective tactic defensively. In this game, rather than allow a very good outside shooting team like Washington State to get looks from the outside in the second half (It went 0-for-4 from three in the second half), it put pressure on the ball, which sometimes enabled Cougars to get into the lane on a dribble drive. But UCLA's help defense was so active the Washington State dribble driver either had his shot altered or, just as importantly, couldn't find anyone to dish the ball to since UCLA's second help rotation was at the spot. Honeycutt's block on Thompson as he was driving into the paint during a crucial time in the second half was perhaps the defensive play of the game.
Conversely, UCLA was aided some by some questionable decisions from WSU's Bone. After the switch to man was so effective in the first half, and then UCLA learned how to beat it in the second half, he never even attempted to go back to the zone, until it was too late. What he didn't realize is that UCLA wasn't necessarily struggling against the man defense, but struggling against the change. They don't adapt well. If he, perhaps, had switched up defenses in the second half that might have gotten UCLA out of its offensive groove. That, probably, is what UCLA is going to see for most of the remainder of the season – opposing teams switching defenses constantly. It was uncanny, too, that when UCLA went on its run in the second half Bone didn't call a timeout. Bone, also, didn't work to get either Smith or Nelson fouled out of the game, with both having huge impacts playing with four fouls each. Heck, even Lee was in some foul trouble and it would have really behooved WSU to get him fouled out since he was the primary defender on Thompson.
It's funny, too, how the UCLA toddler mentality works in terms of free throws. When it's dejected and pouting, it misses its free throws. In this game, when it was energized and happy, it made its all-important crunch-time free throws.
And so goes the rest of the season…