If you've ever thought of discounting the importance of UCLA's prized 2012 recruiting class for this season, this game pretty much dispelled any of those questions. Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams scored 21, 21, and 22 points, respectively, and each carried the game on their shoulders for different sequences. It almost felt like they figuratively handed off the baton during different times in the game, with Muhammad carrying it for a stretch, and then Adams stepping up and then, when those two went quiet for a while, Anderson took over.
Besides the scoring, the biggest contributing factor to UCLA's win was probably Anderson's 15 rebounds. It still didn't allow UCLA to win the rebounding battle with the bigger Sun Devils (43-46), but at least, with Anderson's rebounding effort, the Bruins were competitive on the glass. Big were Anderson's 6 offensive boards, which kept many possessions alive. On a team in which defense and rebounding aren't strong suits, Anderson's rebounding is going to be a key component to any UCLA game.
There was an interesting pace to the game, a bit frenetic, probably reflecting the mental state of each team, that of an urgency to win this game and keep both of their respective, albeit different, hopes alive. Defense tended to suffer because of it, and it seemed like a very offensive game (41-39 at halftime), even if both teams didn't necessarily shoot very well, with UCLA at 42% and ASU at 40%, reflecting the hectic and somewhat harried feel to the night.
UCLA's hopes ended up living on and ASU's, that of getting another big win to hopefully make a case for the Sun Devils to get a nod for the NCAA Tournament, were probably set back considerably.
UCLA's quest for a Pac-12 regular season championship, though, took another big step.
The three freshmen took that step collectively together.
Muhammad carried the baton early, scoring 13 points in the game's first 11 minutes or so. He was hot shooting the ball, with Arizona State allowing the Bruins to run the same, well-known play in which they set multiple baseline screens and Muhammad curls around them, catches and shoots.
He had to, too, since Arizona State carried a lead for most of the first half. The Sun Devils, offensively, were executing their game plan well – getting the ball inside where they have a clear advantage over the Bruins because of posts Jordan Bachynski and Ruslan Pateev. Then, UCLA point guard Larry Drew picked up his second foul early, and ASU point guard Jahii Carson started abusing UCLA even more.
Muhammad's three-pointer at about the 9-minute mark to draw UCLA to within 25-22 seemed to signal a change in the game's momentum, however.
You hate to keep coming back to it, but that momentum shift was dictated by a few – just a few – defensive stops by the Bruins. ASU, for about a six-minute span, could muster only 2 points, mostly because UCLA's defense was focused and sharp, and didn't allow the Sun Devil's a good look. There were also a couple of possessions of zone mixed in there for UCLA, too, which got ASU out of sync and unable to find a decent shot. During this time, UCLA surged, mounting a 10-2 run that enabled them to draw to a tie at 27-27. Most significantly, ASU shifted away from exploiting Carson enough, and the clear advantage he had over UCLA, especially with Drew on the court, since he couldn't really play tight defense and risk picking up a third foul.
That was probably the segment of the game that established the tone and momentum, and UCLA pretty much held onto it the remainder of the way, even though it did take the Bruins until about the 9-minute mark of the second half to even build a 6-point lead.
It's not coincidental that Carson went into a significant dry spell during that time, too, scoring just 2 points for the first 16 minutes of the second half. His 9 points in the last 4 minutes is what pretty much propelled the Sun Devils back to draw even with the Bruins and send the game into overtime. Those first 16 minutes of the second half for Carson, though, were huge in determining the outcome of the game. He seemed to not assert himself nearly as much, when he should have been going right at Drew like he had in the first half. When he finally got back on track, and started burning Drew again is when ASU got back into the game toward the end.
Lucky for UCLA, perhaps, that Carson is still just a freshman and went into that lull. He finished with 22 points, but if he had asserted himself like he did in the last 4 minutes during the beginning of the second half he would have finished with 30+ and ASU probably would have beaten the Bruins.
It's almost inexplicable how UCLA – as a team -- just doesn't know how to defend a pick and roll. David Wear consistently tried to hedge, but then when Carson came around the hedge, Wear would be floating in no-man's land for a few seconds, leaving Bachynski or Pateev easily rolling to the basket. Drew, too, once the screen is set, pretty much just stood and watched. There's certainly no help defense either, to cut off the big sliding to rim unchallenged.
If you're discussing Bruin weaknesses exposed in this game, you have to note how opponents with good athletes can potentially dominate UCLA, like we've seen at times throughout the season. UCLA has no answer for Carson's quickness or Carrik Felix's athleticism. Lucky, again, that ASU only has two high-level athletes.
On the other hand, in UCLA's positive column, there are two things that have made UCLA win this season: That occasional stretch in a game where UCLA plays some pretty decent defense and gets some stops; and when Muhammad, Adams and Anderson are hitting their mid- to short-range shots. It's truly remarkable how good Muhammad and Adams are within 15 feet, with short pull-up jumpers or one-handed floaters. Anderson, too, with his craftiness in the paint, now has to be mentioned here. Whether they're getting those looks in the Early Offense or the halfcourt offense, it's what propels this year's Bruins. It's why, when they're not converting them, UCLA can occasionally get blown out. But it's also why, when opposing teams don't disrupt them enough in catching and shooting, they'll be able to convert offensively at such a pace that other teams just can't keep up. Arizona State did a much better job in the first meeting, obviously, in consisting getting a defender in a spot that disrupted UCLA's mid-range game. Wednesday night, however, ASU seemed quite a bit more ragged defensively, with the frenetic pace of the game contributing to that. It seemed that ASU coach Herb Sendek recognized this, since every time he came out of a timeout his team looked far more organized defensively.
What was at stake in this game for both teams, though, clearly contributed to the pace and ASU's defense subsequently losing Muhammad and Adams around the basket, or from three-point territory, too. UCLA's freshmen, also, exhibited far more poise, taking care of the ball better and making better decisions in critical moments in the game, particularly down the stretch.