Disclaimer: Washington State isn't a good basketball team. Like every other team in the Pac-12.
It's a shame no one saw that game, because it was probably UCLA's best performance of the season. And, though perhaps it was just a sense of nostalgia at work, UCLA's execution on both ends harkened back to years when the final weekend of conference play actually meant something.
Alas, this game was far from meaningful for the standings, and UCLA's play on offense and defense will be remembered fondly only by the tens of people sprinkling the Sports Arena.
UCLA beat Washington State 78-46 on Thursday, and whether or not Coach Ben Howland or the players admitted to it, there was clearly a sense of urgency in their play that was not present in previous weeks, and you can probably point to the Sports Illustrated article as at least one of the culprits.
The real story of the game is that, against the Cougars in Pullman, UCLA was so befuddled by Brock Motum and the Cougars' offense that they were forced to play the much-despised zone defense simply to have a chance. On Thursday, UCLA played man for the entire 40 minutes and forced the Cougars into a 35% shooting night, with Motum going for a very quiet 18 points on 6-of-15 shooting. Save a couple of lapses, notably when Reggie Moore blew by Tyler Lamb for a dunk, UCLA seemed more committed, as a team, to help defense than they have all season. Lamb, Travis Wear, and even Josh Smith all did an excellent job rotating down low to force tough looks at the basket, and even on the perimeter, the Bruins did a much better job of closing out on shooters than they have for much of the season. While this team was probably never going to have a great man-to-man defense due to some athletic limitations, it's a little frustrating to watch it work so well, this late in the season, with just a higher energy level.
David Wear, who has been known to shoot outside of the rhythm of the offense, was much more in the flow on Thursday, popping out for 14-footers off of drives and also playing in control in the post. He and Travis Wear both played well against Brock Motum, forcing him into some tough looks in the paint. Offensively, both were extremely efficient, hitting 9 of 14 shots, which is really something considering that most of their shots were jump shots from 10 to 16 feet. If there's one complaint with the play of the Wears in this game, it's that David did a poor job with his rotations occasionally, getting beaten by Motum a couple of times early in the second half, but Travis actually did a very nice job rotating down low for a couple of blocks.
It's unfortunate that Josh Smith suffered an ankle injury in the first half that seemed to hamper him for his two minutes in the second half, because in his ten minutes in the first half, he was as energetic as he's been all year, playing a very good game away from the ball. On Tyler Lamb's first three, he gave Lamb's man just enough of a screen to free up Lamb, and on Lamb's baseline drive later in the half, he screened Lamb's man for an easy lay-in. On defense, he had one play where he came out on a hedge as the shot clock was winding down and harried Washington State's point guard enough that he actually forced a turnover. Also, he scored six points, all on post feeds where he caught the ball high, kept the ball high, and went quickly and strongly to the basket. It was a very encouraging game for him, because given that this game was relatively meaningless and this season has gone so thoroughly into the tank, it would have been easy for him to fall back into his bad habits.
Lazeric Jones finally seems to be gaining some comfort playing off the ball. On Thursday, he did a very nice job using screens and working to get open against the Washington's State's zone, and hit a couple of early threes that forced the Cougars to start playing man. It was by far his most under-control game, and he didn't really attempt to force the issue at any time, which showed in his stat line, hitting 8 of 10 shots for 18 points to go along with five assists. He had a number of very pretty drive-and-kick plays to the Wear twins for jumpers. Defensively, he, Lamb, Jerime Anderson, and Norman Powell combined to harry Marcus Capers, Reggie Moore, and DaVonte Lacy into a combined 5 of 16 shooting night.
Tyler Lamb also had a very good game. When he has his feet set, and he can shoot the ball in rhythm, he's actually a pretty good shooter. Every one of his six threes were open and in rhythm, and he hit four of them, contributing to his sixteen points. Lamb also showed off a very nice passing touch, getting five assists. In the spirit of Mike Roll, he's probably one of the best post-entry passers on the team. The real question for him has been his ability to do anything off the bounce, and to make good decisions with the ball. On Thursday, he didn't have to do much driving, and he had one of the prettier passes of the season to close out the first half, hitting Travis Wear on the base line with a one-handed bounce pass for an 8-footer. It seems to be a set that Howland likes to use when Anderson is not in the game, where Lamb handles the ball at the top of the key and looks for cutters.
Anderson was in foul trouble in the first half, picking up three, but he did a very nice job facilitating the offense. The offense executed better on Thursday than it has in weeks, and a lot of that is due to Anderson, and his nine assists. While he still, at times, has a pretty shaky handle (getting picked clean by Reggie Moore twice in the second half), he has great court vision, and was responsible for hitting Lamb with perfect timing on at least four of his threes.
Although Anthony Stover was credited with three blocks, and nine minutes, but just five of those minutes, and none of those blocks, came when the game was still in doubt. On a day when the defense was as good as it has been all year, Stover, the best defensive player on the team, was not much of a factor. In his one minute in the first half, he quickly had five points scored on him, and on offense, he looked out of sync, fumbling away an offensive rebound and a high-post feed. That's not meant to be a knock on Stover, but to underscore how effective UCLA's team defense was that the best defender on the team barely contributed to the defensive effort.
Brendan Lane got four minutes at the end of the game, and shot the ball well. He threw down a pretty nasty one-handed dunk, and also hit a three in mop up time.
The free-throw disparity was largely due to some pretty weak defense from Washington State, a high proportion of jump shots from the Wears, and Smith's injury, which kept him mostly out in the second half. The Wears did most of their work from mid range, which didn't give them a ton of time to bang around down low. Also, Powell played very aggressive defense, which contributed to the 21 free throws shot by the Cougars.
Of course, 1200 words later, it's important to point out again that this game was largely meaningless. UCLA is still going to be basically fastened securely to the five or six seed in the Pac-12 tournament, and barring a miracle run where this wildly inconsistent, and mostly pretty bad UCLA team blasts its way into the NCAA Tournament with four victories next week, this game will be seen as nothing more than an idiosyncratic response to adversity.
But, hey, it was nice to watch.
Great Game, Shame No One Saw It
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