It was a good game for a while, played by two fun teams to watch who were both playing hard.
UCLA, in fact, looked like it was asserting itself halfway through the game. With about 5 minutes left in the first half to about the 15-minute mark of the second half, it was working hard on defense, making Oregon have to take difficult shots deep in the shot clock, and it was creating points in its Early Offense and in its halfcourt offense. When UCLA went up 46-41, at that point, they had the dominant hand and the momentum.
But the tenor of the game changed.
Oregon's Head Coach Dana Altman earned his salary over the course of the next five minutes, with his Ducks holding UCLA scoreless, going on a 8-0 run. He went to a matchup zone for a few possessions, and that transition for the Bruins got them out of their offensive rhythm, and he pressured two inbound plays for UCLA after a basket, and got two turnovers. Those tactical choices changed the game, effectively taking the last bits of energy out of the expended Bruins. It was all downhill from there.
The last 10 minutes you could sense it was a matter of UCLA trying to keep Oregon from pulling away, and they failed.
It was a game that, truly, though, could have gone either way. The teams were pretty evenly matched, with UCLA having some advantages in some areas, and Oregon in others.
But a few things went awry in the second half for the Bruins. The game definitely exposed some weaknesses of this team.
Physical and Mental Conditioning, and a Limited Bench. UCLA got gassed, clearly. Kyle Anderson was a typical example. He was near-spectacular in the first half, with 6 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in the first 20 minutes. He disappeared, though, in the next 20, and was repeatedly beat on the boards, at key moments and for critical rebounds. Shabazz Muhammad didn't start the game due to being late to a practice this week, but in the last 10 minutes of the first half, put up a quick 10 points and looked poised to have a great second half. He, however, didn't score the rest of the way. Let that sink in: He didn't score in the second half. He looked lethargic on defense and missed open shots. Jordan Adams showed flashes, and had a sequence in the second half of a few possessions where he scored and exhibited great on-ball defense, creating a turnover. But he struggled for most of the game. The freshmen just weren't prepared to carry this team for a full 40 minutes of physical play against a good team like Oregon.
It was an instance where UCLA's limited roster definitely hurt them. It played with only seven players in the second half, since Tony Parker didn't get a second-half minute.
Athleticism. When both of these teams showed signs of fatigue – and Oregon did, too – the Ducks' athleticism gave them the edge. While they might not have been any more talented than UCLA (and you could make a case that the Ducks are less talented), they are more athletic, and in the second half it was very evident, with more quickness to loose balls, far better ability to stay in front of their man, and a huge indication of athleticism: Rebounding. UCLA got out-rebounded, 40-31. Travis and David Wear, who definitely had their moments in this game (in fact, they provided most of the very few bright spots in the second half), just didn't have the athleticism to match up with Oregon's frontcourt. Travis Wear didn't have one offensive rebound in 34 minutes. Oregon's center Tony Woods looked like he was playing in a different league in terms of athleticism, and he came away with a career-high 19 points, while being ill.
That leads us to the next issue…
Inside Presence. UCLA doesn't really have one. It was clear that, in the second half, Oregon's marching orders were to get their bigs some touches and wear down, well, the Wears (and Anderson). It worked. About halfway through the second half, Oregon's shots were getting, on average, closer and closer to the basket. They took only three three-point attempts in the second half because they didn't have to take more.
No Easy Baskets. We've said repeatedly that this UCLA team is going to have to out-score its opponents, and that it needs to get its points through its Early Offense, which is predicated on the team shooting well as a whole. All of that structure broke down in this game. While UCLA's shooting percentage wasn't horrible for the game (46%), it just stopped getting points in its Early Offense. Muhammad missed a few shots in the second half in semi-transition, as did Adams. It looked like the Bruins were tired from physically having to match up against the bigger, stronger and more athletic Ducks, got fatigued and lost their shooting touch. Usually the Wears are the ones that lose their legs and their shooting touch in the second halves of some games, but in this instance they were the only two players that actually made some shots in the second half and didn't look like their offense was affected by fatigue. UCLA, overall, didn't get many looks in their Early Offense anyway, with Oregon's athleticism able to take much of that away. So, in the second half, with UCLA tired, and not getting many open looks in transition, it tended to rush the ones it did get. If you're going to be a team that lives by your outside shooting, which this Bruin team clearly is, you're also going to die by it occasionally.
Coaching. We've been giving Ben Howland credit when it's been deserved, but we have to objectively point out when he was out-coached, and he was in this game. Altman's moves to throw a few zone possessions at the Bruins and press the inbounds on those two possessions at a critical time in the game, when it could have gone either way, were probably the catalysts to the win. Trying to get his bigs touches in the second half to exploit the frontcourt mismatch also was a big factor. The team, also, executed very well down the stretch, with Oregon freshman point guard Dominic Artic showing some considerable poise in efficiently executing the offense possession by possession when the game had shifted into a possession-by-possession game in the last 10 minutes.
The loss puts UCLA in a bit of a hole in terms of its aspirations to win the Pac-12 Conference, and puts Oregon in the driver's seat. The Ducks leave L.A. with a sweep, and have, arguably, just two tough road games remaining on their conference schedule (@Washington and @Colorado) and Washington at home. They are done with Arizona and UCLA, and got two wins against them. UCLA, now with one loss, has @Arizona, @ASU, and @Washington, and has to face Washington, Arizona and ASU at home.
The Bruins, coming off this deflating loss, now have to go on the road to the desert where the season could go divergent paths. A win at Arizona Thursday will put them firmly back in contention, ahead of Arizona, with a more favorable remaining schedule, and possibly within reach if the Ducks trip up. But a loss, giving them two conference losses and putting them two games behind Oregon, could send them into a ditch that might be difficult to pull out of to win the conference championship.