UCLA Stays Composed, Wins

It's an ugly win, but the Bruins will take it, holding down home court in beating Stanford, 72-61. In the end the composure of UCLA's senior backcourt was the difference...

UCLA held down home court and delivered an ugly win, beating Stanford, 72-61.

The statistics that stand out:

• UCLA is 5-0 at home in the Pac-12.

• The Bruins turned over the ball a season-high 19 times, and combined with the Cardinal for a total of 41 turnovers in the game.

That means ugly. It seemed like just about half the time either team had the ball they were turning it over.

All in all, it probably benefitted UCLA more, with the Bruins actually converting Stanford's first-half turnovers into transition points. It's unusual for UCLA to get any easy, fast-break points, but it catapulted them to a quick, 16-point lead in the first half. It appeared, at that point, with Stanford playing so poorly, and UCLA able to get some icing-on-the-cake scoring in transition, that the Bruins were going to run away with it.

But to Stanford's credit, they settled down, the momentum swung back to them late in the first half, and it carried over into the second half. Key to that was Stanford utilizing a zone in the second half, and then alternating between man and zone the rest of the way, which kept UCLA's offense off-balance enough to allow the Cardinal to creep back into it.

What was key for UCLA was the composed play of its senior backcourt, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson. Sure, the two of them combined for 10 turnovers, but heck, turning over the ball was seemingly unavoidable in this game (there was something in the water?). They did also combine for 12 assists and 9 steals, and Jones had 21 points while Anderson had 12. With the momentum swinging back and forth between the teams throughout the game, it really felt like the team that had the momentum at the end of the game would win. Jones and Anderson, with their senior headiness and leadership, made sure that was UCLA.

What was also a huge factor in securing the win was allowing Jones and Anderson to do what they do best – and that's execute the UCLA offense. Against Washington, UCLA sat on its lead in the last 6 minutes, milking the shot clock and not initiating its offense until perhaps 10 seconds left on the clock. But in this game, there was a clear change in approach in how to win a game when you have a 5-8 point lead with a few minutes left. UCLA operated its offense like it was any other time in the game, and a few possessions made the difference.

Stanford was definitely in it, cutting the lead to three at 56-53 with 4:45 left. UCLA looked gassed, and Stanford had suddenly found a bit of energy – a momentum and energy shift very typical in this game. Tyler Lamb then made an ill-advised pass to an unprepared Josh Smith in the post, and the Cardinal then had possession, down 3, with momentum and energy. It wasn't looking good. On Stanford's possession, Lamb almost redeemed himself with two near-steals, but you have to give him partial credit: His near-steal knocked the ball out of bounds, in time for the TV timeout, at a time when UCLA (typically) doesn't have a timeout left and was in need of one. UCLA, as a result of that timeout, has its in-bound defense reset and has energy, and gets easily the biggest defensive stop of the game when it earns a 5-second call on Stanford. Even if it hadn't gotten the call, Anderson had stepped in front of the in-bound pass and intercepted it anyway.

It was the edge in coaching between Howland and Stanford's Johnny Dawkins on that night. Yes, Howland had already burned his timeouts, but getting his team re-set for the Stanford inbound was huge, especially contrasted with Stanford getting called for the 5-second violation when it had 2 timeouts left.

Then, as we stated above, UCLA didn't sit on its lead and milk the clock. Perhaps it was because it was only up 3 points, Howland had its players execute its offense. A deflated Stanford fell asleep on UCLA's next possession, and Anderson, with an easy pass, finds Jones for a big baseline three-pointer. David Wear then plays great post defense against Josh Owens and forces him to come up short on his shot, Josh Smith (the most well-rested player on the court because of foul trouble) pulls down the defensive rebound, and UCLA goes back to its strength: executing its offense. It runs one of its typical sets, Anderson comes around baseline screens, catches and makes a baseline 15-footer. On the other end, Lamb does finally get his steal, stepping in front of a pass, and UCLA goes back to executing its halfcourt offense. It runs another very familiar set, with a guard curling on the wing for a catch, and Jones does it and utilizes the option of going to the basket, with Stanford's D now tired and flat-footed. That completes a 7-0 run, brings the score to 63-53 and puts away the game.

Not to be flip, but you have to again thank Dawkins, who had the Cardinal in a man D for the last two of those three possessions, mostly because they fell asleep in the zone on the first possession. UCLA had struggled quite a bit more against the zone, which Stanford seldom uses, and it was a knee-jerk reaction on Dawkins' part going back to the man just because Anthony Brown got confused for one possession.

In terms of players, Jones was the difference in this one. To his vast credit, he has gone from a player earlier in the season who seemingly couldn't make a good decision and didn't see a shot he didn't like. He now is playing a very disciplined, under-control game, complete with jump stops and feeds. Every once in a while he'll take an ill-advised shot but they're very rare now. Most of his shots now are within the flow of the offense, which allows him to get his feet set and go up in rhythm. He's shooting 41% from three in conference, and has 63 assists to 34 turnovers. His defense, too, has generally been greatly improved, far better at staying in front of the ball. And he's doing this all when he has to be tired, averaging 35 minutes per game in the conference.

Also, give David Wear and Travis Wear credit. Their fundamentals and discipline were a big contributing factor to UCLA's runs, and for snuffing out Stanford's runs. When the opposing team has the momentum and the Bruins are seemingly falling apart, the Wears' ability to play within themselves, not make many mistakes and do the little things contribute to getting the team back on track. Travis Wear, too, was nursing a sprained ankle, but he still finished with 13 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks. What's notably better about their games is their improved defense; in the post they are far better now at staying in front of their man and, most notably, providing help. UCLA doubled Owens in the post a few times, and it was done very well by the Wears – almost reminiscent of UCLA's Final Four defenses.

The most disappointing aspect of the game was the regression of Smith. As we all know, development comes in starts and stops, and you knew Smith would have a setback from his recent advancement. But it's still deflating – for fans and I'm sure his teammates and coaches – to see it happen so readily and so quickly again. Smith started the game with energy and focus, but that was quickly derailed. As we've been maintaining for a while, and it's now fairly obvious: Smith's struggles have less to do with his conditioning and more to do with his immaturity. He can easily get rattled, and allows a little physical play to get in his head to the point he's playing wildly, on both offense and defense.

It's lucky that UCLA has Anthony Stover, though, to pick up the slack. In a game where length and athleticism in the post was key, with Smith out, Stover's presence was a big factor in UCLA's defense getting so many stops and creating so many Stanford turnovers. The Cardinal players genuninely looked intimidated to take the ball inside against Stover.

There were, of course, a few other sobering aspects of the game. Stanford, plainly, is an average team, with average athleticism, and UCLA struggled at times with that athleticism, especially inside. UCLA would execute its offense well, get the ball to a Wear in the post, but they weren't athletic enough to convert against Stanford. Free throw shooting is, again, the bane of UCLA, and almost kept the Bruins from putting away the game down the stretch. Pretty much, as we've all come to realize, this is an average UCLA team, but it at least, to Howland's credit, it has focused and emphasized its strengths and done quite a bit to minimize its weaknesses. The wheels very well could have come off a few times earlier in the season, but Howland has hammered on the wheels.

It helps, too, that the Pac-12 is bad.

One thing that has to be pointed out that was very evident in this game: Both teams were particularly fatigued. Looking around the conference, it definitely seems to be the case. With six conference games left, you'd have to think a big factor in the all-important Pac-12 Tournament, will be who has gas left in the tank.

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