But that immunity probably wasn't effective when watching UCLA barely hold on to beat Oregon State Thursday, 62-57.
UCLA played perhaps one of its best halves of the season, to go up 37-22 at the break, and then played perhaps one of its worst halves of the season, with Oregon State beating the Bruins, 35-25, in the second half.
On one hand, give the Bruins credit for holding on and getting the win. On the other hand, it's a game that you probably came away saying that UCLA didn't deserve to win.
It's not difficult to analyze. UCLA played well in the first half, showing offensive focus and defensive intensity. In doing so, it shot 65% from the field and held OSU to 23%. It executed well against both Oregon State's 2-3 and 1-3-1 halfcourt zones, and it was active and inspired defensively, playing good on-ball D and rotating quickly in its help defense.
Then, when UCLA came out in the second half, you could visibly see a change in energy and body language. It was as if the Bruins felt they already had the game put away and were merely going through the motions. When OSU went to its 1-3-1 a few minutes into the second half, it required UCLA to take care of the ball and be focused – the exact opposite of what the cruisin' Bruins were doing. The 1-3-1 caused a couple of successive turnovers, and Oregon State converted on the other end to bring the score to 49-40, and the game was on. Regrettably, everyone in the building and watching on TV realized this was now a game – except the Bruins. They kept it in cruise control, and OSU kept making pushes, and by the time the Beavers finished a 21-4 run the game was tied, 51-51. Amazingly, it still didn't seem like it sunk in to the Bruins that they were about to lose. It wasn't as if they suddenly woke up, got active and took back the game and finished it off. They pretty much stumbled to the finished line.
The second half was fraught with everything that you'd throw in if you were going to make a Keystone Cops basketball video: turnovers, sloppy fouls, air balls, missed free throws, missed dunks, slack defense and bad decision after bad decision, especially in terms of time and score. It was amazing how many times UCLA took a shot early on in the shot clock when they had a comfortable lead in the second half, pretty much opening the door and inviting the Beavers to come on in and make a game of it. When a team breaks down, sometimes it might be due to excusable errors, errors that occur when you're trying to do the right thing. Sometimes there are relatively excusable turnovers, when a player is attempting to the right thing at the right time but just can't execute it. UCLA, on the other hand, in the second half, committed so many inexcusable errors -- taking bad or ill-timed shots, forcing passes that would have led to nothing, or outlet passes to start a break that you don't need, etc. – that it was mind-numbing. Coach Ben Howland called a number of timeouts and almost certainly pointed out what was happening to his team, but it didn't make a difference.
We're only going to say one thing specifically about a player's performance. Without Malcolm Lee's defense on Jared Cunningham, UCLA clearly loses this game. Cunningham had been averaging 19 points in the last four games, and Lee held him to 5 points and 1 of 9 shooting.
In our pre-season preview of the season, we questioned the leadership, maturity and mental toughness of this team. We didn't see anyone who had the mental fortitude and competitiveness of an Arron Afflalo or Darren Collison, and we thought that, when the team needed a tough-minded leader to get them through difficult moments, there would be no one to do it. That was definitely the case Thursday night in Corvallis.
Whether this team can find that mental toughness anytime before the end of the season is anyone's guess. But this game isn't exactly a shining example of it potentially doing it.