Pac-12 Tourney: UCLA Rises to Occasion

UCLA pulls off the huge comeback in the closing minutes, rocketing back from 15 down to pull out a 80-75 victory over Arizona State in their first round matchup in the Pac-12 Tournament..

Heart break city?

Maybe not, but you have to guess there were some ASU hearts aching by the end of that game. UCLA came back from down 15 points in the second half of Thursday's game to knock off ASU in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament, overcoming nearly 30 minutes of poor effort, poor shooting, and poor rebounding thanks to a combination of the intensity of Shabazz Muhammad and the intelligent play of Larry Drew.

It was really an astounding, fun comeback, with the Bruins displaying an overall tenacity over the last ten minutes that was heretofore unseen this season. Of course it doesn't rival the importance of the win over Gonzaga, or the drama of that victory, but for this year's UCLA team, we'll take what we can get.

Larry Drew played probably the game of his life, and his ability to play effectively with four fouls over the last eight minutes was absolutely key in UCLA pulling out the victory. He shot better than he's ever shot, and as a distributor, he didn't play poorly, despite recording just four assists. Defensively, he mostly played hard in the second half, and fought over screens well even if there was no way he was going to stay in front of Jahii Carson. There was a stretch in the second half where he and Carson went back and forth on three straight possessions where, if either had faltered, the game could have blown back open.

Muhammad, after playing most of a full season without that trademark intensity we were expecting after his dazzling play in high school, turned it on full bore in the second half on Thursday, rebounding his own misses with a tenacity that we've seen only in flashes this season. He recorded six offensive rebounds on Thursday, displaying tremendous effort on the glass. He took a few wild shots to start the second half, but through the last ten minutes, he played under control.

We'd be remiss if we didn't mention the reasons why UCLA fell down 15 points in the second half, although we've gone over these reasons to the point of nausea this season. UCLA showed little effort in the first half, getting out-quicked by ASU to loose balls and beaten on the glass. On the perimeter, UCLA's guards showed little ability to stay in front of ASU's, with Carson frequently getting open for drives to the basket or dump offs to Jordan Bachynski. Bachynski, as he did in the first game between the two teams this year, dominated in the first half, looking close to unguardable by any combination of Bruins posts. At times, UCLA even played pretty good positional defense on him, and he still just shot over the defense.

The Bruins were also defended well by ASU, generally, having to work deep into the shot clock to get good shots and frequently showing a lack of patience to work for those shots. Norman Powell, in particular, showed a tremendous lack of patience, and showed once again why he shouldn't be taking three pointers this season. Muhammad and Kyle Anderson both shot minimally in the first half, not hitting much from the field.

It was what we worried about pregame—if this UCLA team that so often has played poorly when the stakes weren't high didn't realize the importance of the Pac-12 Tournament, ASU could easily win the game. Combined with the matchup problems for the Bruins, a poor effort could have—and might well should have—been too much to overcome.

The second half started with a flurry of buckets for UCLA, which pulled the Bruins within three, but then things got a little sloppy, with Muhammad playing especially wild on offense, which led to ASU pulling the lead to 11, and then, subsequently, to 15. There was a point, actually, in the second half where it felt like the Sun Devils could have blown the game open when Johnathan Gilling, and then Carrick Felix, both missed wide open threes with about 12 minutes to go and up 15. If either or both of them hit those shots, it was hard to see UCLA making a comeback.

They didn't, naturally, and that's probably where the fatigue of playing an overtime game less than 24 hours before probably came in. Arizona State shot just 38% in the second half after shooting 54% in the first half, and it really wasn't because of improved defense by UCLA. ASU began to hit short on its threes, and struggled defensively to stay in front of Drew and guard Muhammad effectively on the block. The Sun Devils' fatigue clearly played a major role in the Bruins' comeback.

Travis and David Wear, after securing just two combined rebounds through the first 20+ minutes of the game, finished with a combined nine, as the twins gave a much better effort on both ends in the second half. Travis Wear also had probably the two most clutch shots of his career, hitting the go ahead jumper to put the Bruins ahead by one with minutes to go, and then hitting the long two to put UCLA up three with 11 seconds to go.

Tony Parker came in for a minute, and while he had an ugly layup attempt and a foul on Bachynski, he actually looked pretty active and rebounded well, securing two contested rebounds in his single minute of play.

So, now, UCLA will try to maintain the emotion and intensity of the last ten minutes when they take on the winner of Arizona and Colorado tomorrow evening. Key points for UCLA: Drew, thanks to the foul trouble, only played 34 minutes, and no starter played any more than Adams, who played 35. UCLA handled both Arizona and Colorado fairly well this year, so it's a pick ‘em as far as the one you want to see tomorrow.

Given what we've seen of UCLA this year, and their propensity to play down to competition, you almost have to hope for the hype of a matchup with Arizona, though. A chance to get the season sweep against the Wildcats, with a load of fans of both teams in Vegas, could be enough to get the Bruins amped for the game from the opening tip.

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