In terms of the Pac-12 race, it was a game UCLA couldn't drop, needing to hold serve against Cal at home in Pauley Pavilion.
UCLA's recent trend of playing fairly well continued also. In fact, if the game had ended with about 15:50 remaining and UCLA up 51-32 you might have come away thinking it was UCLA's most complete game. Those last 15 minutes or so, though, made the UCLA win a little incomplete, however. Norman Powell had just executed a nice power move and sweep lay-in to stretch the lead to 19 and UCLA looked like it was in complete control. The Bruins, though, looked like they hit a wall at just about that moment and plainly ran out of gas. Cal then went on an 18-2 run to bring them within 3, 53-50, with about 9 minutes left. In fact, the two points UCLA scored were free throws from David Wear, so UCLA didn't score a single basket in that time.
Before we can get to the good analysis, we have to look at those 6 minutes or so of UCLA's mini-, second-half collapse.
Yes, there was fatigue, but there were other factors that really contributed.
The momentum shifted when Cal really pushed the tempo, and that exploited UCLA's fatigue, the Bruins being fairly atrocious getting back on defense in transition. Kyle Anderson, in particular, looked slow-footed, even for Slow-Mo.
The Bruins went to their zone, perhaps to try to counter the fatigue, and the zone was, well, atrocious in the half-court. The thing is – if your players are fatigued in the man they probably are going to be fatigued in the zone, and that looked like what happened. There were huge seams in the zone, mostly because of the Bruins shifting and rotating so slowly. It's also, beyond the fatigue, just plainly evident now that UCLA is by far a worse defensive team in the zone than in its man defense.
It went to its zone line-up – well, its perimeter zone line-up of Bryce Alford and Zach LaVine. The two hadn't played yet in the half, they were fresh, and it appeared at the time a good decision to go to them and the zone at that juncture of the game. But that was wrong.
When Alford comes in, he's put on the ball and Anderson is taken off, and that most of the time leads to the offense sputtering some. It makes logical sense, too, to go to your back-up point guard to carry the point guard burden when your starter is fatigued, but bottom line is the offense doesn't function nearly as well.
Tony Parker didn't play very well throughout the game, but really didn't play particularly well during this stretch. During the entire game he looked like he had regressed from the Parker we've seen recently, rushing on offense, looking lazy and distracted on defense, and committing pretty silly fouls that got him in foul trouble. Parker's performance in this game was, by far, the most troublesome development of the night, showing that he clearly isn't on a fairly straight line going up in his development, but a very jagged one with some particularly valleys to go along with a peak or two.
Cal's talented freshman, Jabari Bird, chose right at this time to explode, picking up points in transition, driving the lane, drawing fouls and hitting big threes.
Cal's run was definitely a confluence of factors, and it got a bit scary there when Cal drew within three.
Alford tried to stem the tide, calling two time-outs in that time, just trying to, first, get his troops a breather.
At 53-50, it was Bryce Alford who provided the offensive spark that turned the game's momentum a bit. Well, at least, stopped the waves of Cal momentum. He scored UCLA's first basket in almost six minutes of play, using a ball screen to luckily find an open key for a lay-in. Then, Anderson took over offensively, scoring UCLA's next two baskets on those mid-range fade-aways that are just about unguardable on the college level.
Also with about six minutes left and UCLA up 58-52, the Bruins went back to their man, and that limited Cal's offense enough to get UCLA some stops.
It's plainly evident that the way Anderson goes is the way UCLA goes. He was clearly fatigued during Cal's comeback, looking like he was dragging up and down the court. But he found a second wind down the stretch, put the ball in his own hands and took over the game.
Give Steve Alford credit for doing just about what any coach would do to try to offset that Cal run.
Other than during that six minutes of playing time, UCLA generally played well in the other 34 minutes. David Wear easily had one of the best halves of his Bruin career, going off for 16 points in the first half and carrying UCLA's offense while Anderson wasn't getting any shots. Give Cal's Tyrone Wallace credit for good defense on Anderson, perhaps the best we've seen all season. At about 6-4, long and with good lateral athleticism, Wallace was a constant nuisance to Anderson. Anderson, after a while, is too much to hold down for too long, finishing with 17, but he had just two points at the half.
While Parker and Zach LaVine, two guys who in recent games had really stepped up and given UCLA a shot in the arm, were non-existent in this one, it was Norman Powell who supplied good, difference-making energy on both ends of the floor. Powell continued to show aggressiveness in looking for open lanes to the basket, and what's really improved is his ability to then find teammates with nice dishes. That wasn't always a strong suit for Powell, usually being a bit questionable in his decision-making with the ball in his hand, but he had a few nice assists in this one, to go along with 11 strong points. It was very encouraging, too, that Powell is being rewarded for his improved and more-disciplined play, garnering 30 minutes of playing time in this one. Bryce Alford, too, provided an offensive spark in the last stretch of the game that was crucial to the win.
-- UCLA needs to spend less time in the zone, even if they are fatigued. Even if Bryce Alford isn't a great man defender on the ball, overall the team is now clearly better defensively in the man. It held Cal to 34% shooting on the night and, right before Cal's run, that number was down to 31%.
-- Playing man greatly helps UCLA on the boards, bringing Anderson closer to the basket for the most part. He led UCLA with 12 rebounds in this one, and he's just too good of a rebounder, and rebounding is too crucial to UCLA's success (not just in limiting opposing offenses but initiating UCLA's transition game) not to exploit his rebounding prowess. Also, the man D generally enables UCLA's defenders to get a body on its opponents and block out. When rebounding in the zone, there is far less blocking out. UCLA eked out a rebounding win against Cal, 39-38.
-- It's clear that Alford needs to manage and monitor Parker and keep a relatively close eye on him in every game. It was evident in his first couple of possessions on the floor that he wasn't right, lazily fumbling an easy pass on his first touch. It's a question of whether Parker was a bit miffed that, after playing so well recently, he didn't sub in until 8 minutes in the game.
-- Along those same lines, it seemed that LaVine never got fully in the rhythm, and it seemed a bit, too, because he sat for the first 8 minutes of the game. The subbing should be able to be done in a far more effective and adaptive manner than three subs – Parker, LaVine and Bryce Alford – all coming in together at the same time. Sure, you could see that with David Wear being so hot in the first half that Steve Alford didn't want to sub him out, but that doesn't mean LaVine needs to sit on the bench and wait for Parker and Bryce Alford to come into the game. It definitely appeared that in trying to ride David Wear's hot streak it kind of cooled off LaVine and Parker.
It was a good win, though, overall. Even with that second-half mini-collapse, UCLA continued to play better defense, mostly because its man defense is continuing to improve and perform better. It's all about defense, especially for this team since it's pretty well accepted it's going to score, so continuing the trend of good defense makes this game another positive step forward.