Arizona has one of the best defenses in the country, but the Bruins started the game as if they were still playing Oregon or Stanford. The UCLA defense was solid, forcing Arizona into contested jump shots and the Bruin offense continued to hum along as it did all three games in Las Vegas. Norman Powell got it going early, as he had eight of the Bruins first 19 points. But all of the starters were contributing, as Kyle Anderson continued to be a match-up nightmare (I think Arizona tried four different defenders on him), Travis Wear buried an early jumper and Jordan Adams scored in a variety of ways.
Arizona was struggling badly on offense early, but received a boost when Gabe York and Elliot Pitts came off the bench to knock down several three-pointers. Those shots seemed to calm the Wildcats down a bit and, when they started getting some buckets inside from Kaleb Tarczewski, it appeared that they might put a major run on the Bruins. However, in what would become a theme for both teams, the Bruins answered. Jordan Adams posted up Nick Johnson a few times and the Bruins managed to maintain a couple point lead for long stretches of the half. One key moment in the first half came with the Bruins leading 33-29 and Kyle Anderson went out for his first rest of the half. As has happened most of the season, the offense quickly went stagnant without Anderson and he was rushed back into the game when Arizona closed to within 33-32.
The entire first half was extremely well-played, and hard-fought, by both teams. All season long I've been watching games around the country where each team is playing hard and getting after it. It may not always be pretty – the one and done rule has removed the really skilled and athletic juniors and seniors from college basketball – but I've seen a lot more toughness, effort and intensity around the country than I've seen in the Pac-12. The first half of this game was like a heavyweight fight. Both teams made play after play, answering each other's big plays repeatedly and not giving an inch. At the end of the first half I literally exhaled and said "damn, that's what it's supposed to be like."
With the effort that was expended in the first half, it wasn't surprising that the second half wasn't nearly as well played. Arizona started out the half putting the Bruins into some ball screens and it was very effective, as T.J McConnell and Nick Johnson got free for a couple three-pointers and then Tarczewski got an easy dunk rolling off a screen. However, after that early success, the Bruin defense tightened up once again and Arizona began settling for tougher shots.
On offense, the Bruins had a stretch where they did most of their damage at the line. Anderson, Powell and Adams did a good job of drawing contact on drives to the basket and their free-throw shooting was really the difference in the game. Between the three of them, they converted on 20-22 free throws. Arizona, by contrast, only made 6-16 with Aaron Gordon being the main culprit at 2-8. The Bruins ability to knock down free throws under pressure was really the biggest factor in getting the win.
The latter stages of the game became really ragged, as both teams were clearly fatigued and making uncharacteristic mistakes. There were a number of questionable shots, some almost comical turnovers and neither team could generate any kind of consistent offense late. Part of that was due to good defense, as each team was playing with a great deal of intensity, but it was mainly two tired teams giving into fatigue a bit. However, one guy that didn't give into fatigue was Travis Wear. His hustle play diving for a loose ball, and getting a timeout while sprawled on the floor, was one of the more impressive plays of the season. It didn't actually result in any points on the possession, but it was a big-time play nonetheless.
Arizona has better athletes, and a better defense, than the Bruins. But UCLA has the superior skill level throughout its roster and that skill was ultimately the difference on the deciding play of the game. Coach Alford called a play for Jordan Adams to pop out after he set a screen and Adams buried a huge three-pointer to give the Bruins a lead they wouldn't relinquish. For Adams, it was redemption after he missed a similar shot against Arizona earlier in the season. And it had to be particularly sweet for him coming on the same court a year after he suffered a season-ending injury.
Coach Alford cut back on the minutes for his bench in this game, with Bryce Alford, Zach LaVine and Tony Parker each getting 13 minutes. That's a significant reduction from the rest of the season and it was clearly a good move. Parker did grab seven rebounds, but the reality is that none of those three players deserve to be getting minutes at the expense of the starters. It's taken the entire season, but hopefully the Bruins will now play their best players the majority of the minutes.
Speaking of "best players," Kyle Anderson was obviously the best player in the league this season, just as he was obviously the best player on the court in this game. I understand the argument for giving the POY to the best player on the team that finishes first in the league, but Anderson was much better than Nick Johnson this season. The amazing thing about Anderson's 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in this game was that…it wasn't unusual or surprising. He's been carrying the Bruins all year and he did it again in this game. Time and again Anderson came up with huge defensive rebounds, or stemmed an Arizona run with a drive to the lane or got fouled and calmly knocked down free throws. Anderson is one of the best kept secrets in college basketball, which is shocking given his play and the media market he's playing in.
The exciting thing for UCLA fans, beyond getting a very satisfying win over Arizona, is that the Bruins are peaking heading into the NCAA tournament. The emergence of Norman Powell as a legitimate third option, along with Anderson and Adams, makes the Bruins an even more difficult team to defend than they already were. Travis and David Wear, while not great interior defenders and rebounders, are two more offensive weapons that defenses have to account for in their game plan. And the Bruin defense, which has been so lax and inconsistent all year, is finally starting to string together multiple stops in a row.
After the Bruins had their previous best win of the season, the blowout at Cal, I wrote a post wondering if they would be able to build on that performance in a similar way to what the 2006 Bruins did when they figured out how good they could be if they would buy-in to defense. That obviously didn't happen on the Bay Area trip and it seemed as if the Bruins didn't learn any lesson at all from that big win at Cal. Watching the way the Bruins performed this week in Las Vegas was both exhilarating and frustrating. Exhilarating, obviously, because this was clearly their best basketball of the season. But also frustrating because you realize this team hasn't been giving a great effort for most of the year. When Travis Wear made his great diving play on the loose ball, I texted to a friend "we haven't seen that kind of hustle all year." I'm not sure why that's the case, but that's the way it's been this year.
Now that the Bruins have seen what they are capable of when they play truly inspired for 40 minutes – knocking off a one seed in the equivalent of a road game – one wonders if the lesson will be learned this time. I don't think anyone suddenly expects UCLA to win a national championship this season, but I do believe the bar has been raised beyond "Sweet 16 is our ceiling." As I wrote prior to this game, though, I'm not even really looking too much at winning or losing at this point. I'm more concerned with UCLA playing with maximum effort, focus and intensity. If the Bruins had lost this game to Arizona, it wouldn't have changed the fact that they played their best game of the season and competed to the best of their abilities. If they can do that in the NCAA tournament, I'll be satisfied regardless of whether they win or lose in the second round or Elite Eight.