UCLA didn't play with the same effort level it showed in beating No. 1 Kentucky Sunday night against Long Beach State, but the Bruins put together enough spurts of energy in the second half to fend off the feisty 49ers 83-76.
The Bruins opened the game looking very lethargic, giving up several open looks to Long Beach State, with the perimeter defense from both Isaac Hamilton and Bryce Alford looking particularly woeful. Tony Parker's concentration also seemed poor, especially on the offensive end, where he missed a couple of point-blank shots. Credit Steve Alford then, who pulled Parker after about a minute and a half and then pulled Hamilton after five minutes. That seemed to spark both players, who were much more consistent over the remainder of the game. Still, UCLA was down by nine at one point late in the first half thanks to inattentive defense and poor focus on offense.
Long Beach State, as Rob put it in his preview, wasn't a great matchup for UCLA, since, as we saw against Kentucky, the Bruins are best when they can pack their defense in around the lane and force bad-shooting teams to take jump shots. The problem in this one, and the reason the 49ers are a bad matchup, is that Long Beach is actually a decent shooting team, and yet UCLA still gave up an absurd 30 three-point attempts. A handful of those were NBA three-pointers, where UCLA would have had to extend its defense past the three-point line to have any chance of challenging the shot, but mostly, they were shots well within normal college range. Long Beach actually shot a few percentage points below its season average against the Bruins, despite getting mostly open looks.
Bryce Alford made a ton of big shots in this one, and largely led the comeback to end the first half, scoring ten points and recording two assists over the last six minutes to bring UCLA from down 32-23 to down just 38-37 at the half. This was his best shooting night in six games, and he made a variety of tough, contested looks from the perimeter. On the flip side, his defense to open the game was pretty low effort, and led to quite a few Long Beach points. Given what we saw from him against Kentucky, it's clearly within him to play with decent effort on the defensive end, and it would probably do wonders for this team from a leadership perspective if he brought that energy with more consistency, especially to open games against lesser opponents.
Hamilton, in particular, played one of his best games in a while after getting pulled, hitting a variety of shots and also giving a solid effort on defense in the second half, for the most part. He did it on a night when his understudy, freshman Prince Ali, really struggled, which should help to keep Ali from cutting into his minutes.
The first half was pretty funky, overall. UCLA didn't have much of a rebounding advantage through the first 20 minutes despite having a considerable size advantage, and had outscored Long Beach State just 14-12 in the paint. Most of the time, we'd say that's on the guards for not getting the ball into the posts, and, while that was definitely the case to an extent, UCLA's bigs also didn't seem to be fully engaged. Thomas Welsh, who took a major step forward against Kentucky, took a step back in this one, playing a little tentatively on both ends, especially on the glass. He's obviously still learning what he can get away with -- there were moments where he was clearly ready and happy to go through contact, but for the most part, he seemed to shy away from contact. He still managed to put up some numbers -- 10 rebounds, including 7 offensive -- but we'd like to see a little more consistent physicality from him.
Aaron Holiday didn't have a great shooting night, and had a couple of sloppy turnovers, but he made a positive impact defensively and actually led the team in assists. He seems to have a nice feel for getting Welsh the ball in good spots for the big man to hit his mid-range jumper, but he also distributed well to all levels, getting Alford, Hamilton, and even Jonah Bolden all good looks from three.
The bench really didn't provide much. Bolden rebounded some, but Alex Olesinski and Ali didn't provide many positive contributions off the bench. Alford, for the most part, rode the starters, with the starting five averaging just under 34 minutes.
The worrying part about Sunday night is that just three days after putting together their best effort of the season against Kentucky, UCLA went back to a relatively poor effort against Long Beach State. If you're inclined to view things favorably, you might say that they were bound for a little bit of a lull after the amount of energy they expended against the No. 1 team on Thursday, but given what we saw from the first seven games of the year and now against Long Beach State, we can't shake the idea that Kentucky was the anomaly, and not the new normal.
In any case, UCLA now gets about a week off before taking on Gonzaga this Saturday. The Zags are fresh off a loss to Arizona, but are a dangerous team with multiple three-point threats and one of the better defenses in the country through seven games, at least statistically. UCLA will absolutely need to bring the same effort it showed against Kentucky to win that one.