With their NCAA tournament hopes hanging in the balance, the Bruins gave a good effort Friday night against Arizona, but they were ultimately worn down and the Wildcats came away with a 70-64 win in the Pac-12 tournament semifinal game.
Arizona raced out to an early 11-2 lead and it looked like UCLA might get run out of the gym. The Wildcats were clearly focused and ready to avenge their loss to the Bruins in last year’s conference tournament. Arizona was playing energetic defense and getting easy looks against the Bruins’ porous man defense. With a huge contingent of Wildcat fans going nuts, and the Bruins playing with little poise, it had the feeling of a potential Arizona blowout.
But the game changed when UCLA went to a zone defense. Arizona coach Sean Miller has shown that he can recruit, and get his teams to play good defense, but he has yet to show that he can coach good offense. And that deficiency was obvious in this game. With the Bruins standing in a very passive zone, the Wildcats settled for four consecutive missed jump shots and the Bruins began to crawl back into the game.
The Bruins were hindered, though, by foul trouble. Both Isaac Hamilton and Tony Parker picked up early fouls. Thomas Welsh came off the bench to give UCLA some quality minutes, but the loss of Hamilton was much more significant. Noah Allen ended up playing 25 minutes as a result of Hamilton’s foul trouble and that severely impacted UCLA at the offensive end. With Allen being a non-factor on offense, the Bruins are basically playing four on five at the offensive end when he’s in the game. Opposing teams know they can leave Allen alone on the perimeter and the Wildcats were giving help defense off of Allen all night.
Arizona had its own problems on offense in the first half. The Wildcats appeared clueless in how to attack the UCLA zone, often settling for jump shots or committing unforced turnovers. Brandon Ashley was the only Wildcat player doing anything as he went 5-6 from the field while the rest of his teammates went 4-19. UCLA struggled to get good looks throughout the half, but did manage to tie the game at 27 when Bryce Alford hit a three-pointer to close the half.
The second half started well for the Bruins as Norman Powell decided to take over the game. All season long the Bruins have been carried by Kevon Looney and/or Powell. With Looney hindered somewhat by a protective face mask, it was up to Powell to lead the Bruins. The senior wing responded with a terrific performance as he played all 40 minutes. With the Bruins struggling to get quality shots, Powell went into his now familiar routine of attacking the basket with dribble drives from the perimeter. UCLA ran ball screen after ball screen for Powell and Arizona consistently got beat on the play.
Arizona, meanwhile, was still having difficulty getting quality looks against the Bruin zone defense and UCLA managed to forge a 47-40 lead. But the Wildcats then went on a game-deciding 15-0 run as they started pounding the ball inside. Ashley made several big plays and the Wildcats started to hurt the Bruins with offensive rebounds. The Wildcats were more patient in attacking UCLA inside and the Bruins had no answer for Arizona’s superior athleticism. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Stanley Johnson had both been relatively quiet for most of the game, but they were keys for the Wildcats in the second half with their energy on defense and the offensive glass.
The Bruins, to their credit, didn’t fold after the huge Wildcat run. They kept battling and managed to stay close at the end thanks to a couple huge three-pointers from Powell and Looney. But the Bruins ultimately couldn’t get enough stops on defense and Powell couldn’t beat the Wildcats by himself. Ashley carried Arizona for most of the game, but Johnson was huge late for the Wildcats, as he knocked down a big three-pointer and made four critical free throws late to seal the game.
For the Bruins, this game was a microcosm of the season. All season long UCLA has been carried by the terrific play of either Kevon Looney and/or Norman Powell, with occasional solid play from the center duo of Tony Parker and Thomas Welsh, and typically subpar play from Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton. That script was followed once again in this game. As we mentioned, Looney seemed to be hindered somewhat by his mask, but Powell did his thing and Parker and Welsh combined for 22 points on 7-12 shooting. Welsh, in particular, played well at both ends of the court. The flashes he’s shown this season are very encouraging and he figures to be among the better big men in the league next season.
Where the Bruins got killed, as has been the case almost all season, was in the backcourt. One game after a career high against USC, Isaac Hamilton took himself out of this game with a couple of really dumb fouls. And in a game where the Bruins needed all the offense they could muster, his absence from the majority of the game was critical. He finished the game 3-3 from the field, but only managed to play 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, Bryce Alford was typically inefficient on offense, going 3-12 from the field and having three turnovers with only two assists. His inability to function as a point guard was critical in this game, as the Bruins struggled to get open looks and he ended up settling for bad shots or out of control drives to the basket.
But where Alford really hurt the Bruins was on defense. Just as the Bruins are playing four on five on offense with Allen on the court, they are also playing four on five on defense with Alford on the court. He’s unable to stay in front of any competent high major point guard and he’s basically a stationary pylon in the zone defense. Against high major competition this season, Hamilton has been a poor defender, but Alford has been a non-existent defender. Along with the lack of depth, that defensive weakness in the backcourt has been the biggest issue for this team.
Most prognosticators felt the Bruins were on the bubble heading into this tournament and the consensus seemed to be that UCLA had to beat Arizona to reach the NCAA tournament. Unable to accomplish that goal, the Bruins will now have to wait and see if the selection committee puts them in as one of the last teams in the tournament field.
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