We've been saying that UCLA had been starting to become the team we thought they could be at the beginning of the season, one with a great deal of offensive weapons that would have to out-score its opponent to be successful, and that's exactly what they were Friday night.
UCLA's offense was superb, shooting 51% from the field, able to score against Missouri in both transition and in its half-court offense.
The difference in this game, clearly, though, was that UCLA came to play against the Tigers like in no other game so far this season, or in recent memory. They had a few short lulls here and there, but sustained focus and effort for most of the game, and kept showing heart by mounting comebacks when it looked like Missouri was about to pull away.
Missouri was up by 86-77, with about 4 minutes left, and UCLA looked like it was starting to fold, having turned the ball over sloppily on successive possessions that started what appeared to be the decisive, game-winning Missouri run. But the Bruins surged back with a 10-2 run and looked more energized and hungrier than Missouri by the end of regulation and in overtime.
Shabazz Muhammad was the hero, scoring 27 points on the night, and hitting two huge three-pointers in overtime to give the Bruins the edge. Muhammad won't play much defense, but the warrior mentality definitely shows itself on the offensive side, when he is relentless in both transition and in the halfcourt in trying to put the ball in the basket. You have to give him a great deal of credit for calmly hitting the two three-pointers in overtime when other freshmen might have not had their legs or the composure to pull that off.
Travis Wear might have had his best game as a Bruin, scoring 22 points and getting 9 rebounds in a game where he played within himself and fulfilled his role perfectly. David Wear was also good, too, getting 16 and 9, and was the main catalyst to UCLA's inspired play to start the second half.
Larry Drew continued to be the facilitator on offense, with 10 assists against 3 turnovers. He, like we've said in the last couple of weeks, is starting to find an offensive niche, being able to take defenders off the dribble when it warrants it.
Jordan Adams continues to exhibit the ability to be a great scorer, not just a shooter. His move to the basket at the end of overtime to tie the game at 88-88 was done with the confidence and savvy of a player far more mature than a freshman.
Give Coach Ben Howland a great deal of credit for finding a formula with his personnel to beat a very good, high-major team. It was perhaps one of the best coached games by Howland in quite a while, with many elements that he had been developing on this team coming to fruition against Missouri. Howland has been working on getting this team to score in transition, and they definitely did so Friday, getting some critical points on breaks when they needed some easier scoring. He had a good game plan in how to utilize his personnel, with Muhammad, Travis Wear and David Wear scoring a collective 65 points by each of them doing what they do well in the natural flow of the offense. The Wears are the best when they can catch and shoot from about 15 feet, and they had it going against the Tigers, who complied by not closing out when the Wears caught the ball but giving them space. Then, and this was critical, Howland and the Wears recognized when they had a mis-match inside, with Missouri's athletic center, Alex Oriakhi, sitting for big portions of the game in foul trouble. Howland, too, put Muhammad in the best position for him to score, running screens for him on the perimeter, not making him have to put the ball on the floor, but also catching the ball around the basket where he can use his strength to get to the rim, and designating him basically the #1 finisher on the break. There were very few, if any, instances in this game when you questioned the shot selection, and who was taking the variety of shot. Howland also deftly used his remaining fouls at the end of regulation to minimize Missouri's chance of getting a good look.
UCLA's defense wasn't great, but it actually wasn't completely horrendous either. This is just about the best you can expect from UCLA's defense this season against a team the caliber of Missouri, to get a few decent stops throughout the game. The Bruins struggled to defend the post inside, but luckily Oriakhi's limited minutes (19) didn't make it much of a factor down the stretch. Muhammad and Adams both struggled in defending Keion Bell and Laurence Bowers, and luckily those two had to spend some time on the bench, particularly in the first half, due to foul trouble. Drew really struggled to keep Missouri's talented point guard Phil Pressey in front of him, allowing him to score 19 points and get a mind-blowing 19 assists. Missouri went to the high-ball screen time and time again, and scored a huge amount of points by Pressey creating off it, with the Missouri post slipping to the basket, or Pressey easily coming around the screen with Drew half-heartedly trying to trail him. UCLA's defense did have a handful of key stops, and it wasn't coincidental that many of them came when Norman Powell was in the game to provide better on-ball defense.
Get used to this. Defense doesn't win games at UCLA anymore.
A friend texted me toward the end of the game, saying…"Exciting game. Love the offense. But Howland circa 2006 would be rolling over in his grave watching this defense."
I texted back: "True. But you have to stop re-living the past. That defense is gone. Just enjoy the new, fast-paced, high-scoring style. That's what everyone wanted anyway."
While we, of course, yearn for some Howland defense circa 2006, you have to admit – this style is a great deal of fun. That was one of the most entertaining UCLA basketball games in quite a while.
Even if this team has to out-score you to beat you, make no mistake that the difference against Missouri was the team playing with heart and focus for most of the night. If we're using this game against Missouri as a measuring stick, the improving Bruins have a chance to put together a decent year after its less than auspicious start. This team, the way they played tonight, should beat up most of the Pac-12, since the conference is just plainly not very good. Tonight's team will have a very good shot at beating Arizona, who is a fairly over-rated #3 team in the nation. You can only hope the recent improvement, this win, and most importantly, the energy and effort the team showed Friday night, will spill over into conference play, and subsequently put this team in the Pac-12 title race.
At the very least, given how the first half of the season has gone, if the rest of the season is anything like Friday night, it should at least be exciting to watch.