Perhaps these Bruins should hit bottom more often.
While that's partly facetious, there is probably something to it; when a program is under fire there is a circling-the-wagons mindset that can take place, and it certainly did over the course of the last two games for UCLA.
Give the team and the coaching staff credit. The article could have easily been the death blow to a very disappointing season, and the players could have rolled over. But Ben Howland, clearly, is not a quitter, and his players haven't given any indication this season that they are either.
It was, too, an interesting game tactically. Washington's athletes have a clear advantage over the Bruins, especially in the backcourt. The Huskies are bigger and more athletic at almost every moment in every backcourt match-up. Washington Head Coach Lorenzo Romar, too, did everything he can to exploit that advantage, and take further advantage of UCLA's poor defensive tendencies, namely the backcourt's inability to stay in front of more athletic guards, and the UCLA frontcourt's continual struggle with defending screens. UCLA's starting guards, Jerime Anderson and Lazeric Jones, simply couldn't stay in front of their man, often times without a ball screen. Washington's Tony Wroten is well-known to be a guy who can only go left, but Jones seemed to be shading him right, and Wroten went left and burned him. Anderson, truly, looked completely out of it defensively for the entire game. In the first half, Washington used ball screen after ball screen to free up space for its shooters and drivers, and UCLA obliged. With his bigs, Ben Howland had long ago abandoned the notion that they could hedge, his defense of choice against ball screens, and had been plugging most of the season, but UCLA's bigs flat out couldn't even plug in this game. Josh Smith, Travis Wear and David Wear are not the most athletic defenders, but they coupled that with seemingly a collectively cluelessness in how to defend a screen, and today not even getting how to plug. Often times they sagged even instead of plugging, leaving both the driver and screener open, and Washington took a huge advantage because of it. The Huskies had a whopping 14 assists in the first half, shoot 53%. This was playing right into the Huskies hands, playing to their strength and UCLA's weakness.
You'd think the obvious defensive adjustment would be to go to a zone, to help with drivers and not having to figure out ball screens. Howland went to it once in the first half – for one possession – and UW's Terrence Ross hit a three-pointer and we never saw it again.
So, the prospects for UCLA's defense didn't look good for the second half. You could anticipate that UCLA's defense would tire, having chased around Washington's better athletes (and even getting burned on transition D in the first half) and trying to push through screens, and it was bound to get even worse. But Howland adjusted, surprisingly going to the hedge, the tactic that his bigs consistently all season have not been able to do because of a lack of foot speed. It was probably out of desperation, but it was an effective move, with the hedging seemingly throwing off Washington's offense just a bit, taking them out of the rhythm they had established against the plug or, more accurately, the sag. It was enough to disrupt a number of Washington possessions that UCLA got key stops, and held Washington scoreless for almost four minutes, enabling the Bruins to go on a 7-2 run over 6 minutes and take the lead with five minutes remaining. Washington shot just 32% from the field in the second half.
Key in that defensive surge was the play of Tyler Lamb, who was easily the player of the game. He was credited with four steals, and seemingly had more and a few near-steals, in helping UCLA overtake the Huskies. He also had six big defensive rebounds, crashing the weakside to take away any second-chance Husky points. He also was the catalyst offensively, possession after possession being the guy who created the good look for either himself or the team. Washington had mostly gone to its 2-3 zone, and for whatever reason, Anderson and Jones thought they could only pass around it, and committed a number of turnovers in the first half with lazy, errant passes. Jones, also, tried to shoot over the zone, and did it with hurried, out-of-rhythm looks. Lamb, though, clued in, attacking the zone, and Washington's was particularly soft and vulnerable inside. Lamb penetrated and scored a couple of times himself on jump-stop floaters and then dished off to teammates after the zone had to collapse on him. He finished with 5 assists. He also contributed in scoring, getting 12 points in the first half and finishing with 14, hitting two big three-pointers.
Jones played poorly defensively and his shot selection wasn't great, but he did come through with some clutch baskets, particularly off one Lamb steal and dish in the second half. Jones finished with a team-high 20 points.
Perhaps the next best development in this game for the Bruins, after Lamb's light bulb coming on a bit, was seeing Norman Powell put the ball on the floor and drive the lane against Washington's zone. His defense, too, is coming along, at times doing well in moving his feet and being active in one-on-one match-ups, before he broke down on help assignments a few times.
The Wear brothers were instrumental. Travis Wear's double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) was impressive, and came as a result of his relentlessness around the basket and overall hustle.
Josh Smith had a couple of good sequences that were key. An offensive rebound and putback late in the game was huge. It is, though, frustrating to watch him and wonder how it's possible, this deep into his college career, he still lunges and falls when moving to the basket and refuses to use the backboard.
We know we might be considered a one-trick pony with our incessant mantra about defense, but this game was a huge indication of how defense can win you games. Both teams were playing particularly poor defense for most of the game, and both teams were scoring seemingly at will, shooting astronomical percentages from the floor. It was going to come down to whichever team could out-score the other in the last few minutes. But that wasn't, ultimately, what determined the game's outcome. The difference in the game was clearly just a few good defensive possessions by UCLA in the second half. It makes you, again, return to the notion that UCLA under Howland has lost its way and identity – that if UCLA had just a couple of good defenders, the type it had that carried it to Final Fours, this team would have had a chance to be pretty good. Think about this team with just one perimeter defender the likes of Malcolm Lee (and even take away any offensive contributions he might bring), and a post defender like Alfred Aboya. You'd have a guy who could stay in front of the ball on the outside, and a big who can hedge, play shut-down post D, double the post and take charges. If UCLA had that this season, without any more offensive contributions, it would have won the Pac-12.
The win might help UCLA's chances in the Pac-12 Tournament seeding. UCLA wants to avoid Cal as long as possible, since it's proven to be a bad match-up for them. Since Oregon State beat Colorado, the Bruins now need Stanford to beat Cal on the Farm (they play Sunday at 2:30). That would put UCLA at the 5 seed and Cal at the 2 or 3, which is the other side of the bracket, and UCLA would be able to avoid them until the final. If Cal beats the Cardinal, and UCLA wins both Wednesday and Thursday in the tournament, the Bruins would face the Bears in a Friday semi-final.