PG Bryce Alford (USA Today)

UCLA Outmanned By North Carolina

Dec. 19 -- UCLA can't pull off the third big upset of the non-conference season, falling short to North Carolina on Saturday...

As most likely expected, UCLA lost to North Carolina by a comfortable margin on Saturday, losing steam completely over the last ten minutes or so, which saw UNC go from a 60-57 lead with Aaron Holiday shooting a couple of free throws at the 9:34 mark in the second half to UCLA being down 73-57 at the 6:10 mark. The game was effectively over at that point, as UCLA’s inability to generate any defensive stops down the stretch sealed the Bruins’ fate.

The biggest issue for UCLA in this game was a lack of overall depth. With Prince Ali out with a bone bruise in his knee, UCLA was already in the position of having to play short-handed in the backcourt, and then Thomas Welsh dealt with significant foul trouble in the first half that had his sidelined for most of the period. That forced Alex Olesinski and Noah Allen into extended minutes, and neither of those guys are capable of playing those kinds of minutes against a team as athletic and talented as Carolina.

It’s a shame, because UCLA actually came out really well to start the game, with the Bruins running out to an early 23-13 lead thanks to some hot shooting by Isaac Hamilton and solid play on both ends by Tony Parker. However, right after UCLA went up 23-13, Parker came out of the game as part of his usual rotation (he only had one foul at that point) and sat for the next five minutes. At that point, Welsh was also out of the game, having already picked up a couple of fouls, which left Alex Olesinski and Noah Allen both in the game for a long stretch. For the next five minutes, Parker sat, and in that time, UNC gathered itself and went on a 10-5 run. UCLA had a chance to put Parker in at the TV timeout at the 7:30 mark, but instead kept him on the bench while UNC scored another quick four points.

Olesinski, unfortunately, was a huge part of that run. He turned the ball over on three out of four possessions at one point and looked wildly uncomfortable on the court. He wasn’t looking to shoot or drive but was also unable to effectively pass or rebound. It’s an unfortunate reality that he is just not capable of playing any significant minutes against a good team at this point.

Even after that, though, UCLA had a chance to stick in the game, but it also seemed that UCLA’s energy really started to dissipate after that opening 15 minutes. Transition defense really started to go bad toward the end of the first half, and then was a disaster for much of the second half. Parker, once he came back in after sitting for five minutes, looked much more lethargic and much less engaged in the game. You simply can’t jog back on defense after a missed basket against Carolina, and all too often he was very slow to get back. North Carolina’s bigs are way too good at running the floor and way too willing to get out in transition to be that slow getting back on defense.

Parker was really key in that respect: when he was playing well, in the opening ten minutes, UCLA looked capable of beating North Carolina. When he was playing poorly, which was the case for the last 25 minutes of the game, UCLA really didn’t have much of a chance of playing with the Tar Heels.

UCLA also isn’t really capable of matching up consistently against the athleticism of a team like North Carolina. If the Bruins uniformly shot well and played hard on defense they would have had a chance, but this was definitely a game where the Tar Heels had a talent advantage. The ball pressure that North Carolina was able to apply on the perimeter led to some really tough possessions for UCLA and quite a few turnovers for the Bruins.

The defensive intensity overall wasn’t particularly close to the effort UCLA showed against Kentucky a couple of weeks ago, or against Gonzaga last weekend. It wasn’t as bad as it was in the early games of the season, but North Carolina was still able to get fairly open looks throughout much of the game. The Tar Heels started hitting more of their shots late, which was a big part of why they suddenly blew the game open in the final minutes. Some of the defensive issues were very likely due to the short bench, but it didn’t appear that the level of intensity was quite there to start the game either.

UCLA’s bigs played very tentatively in the second half, and we can imagine that some of that had to do with the foul calls throughout the game. I’m usually reluctant to talk about refereeing, but this game had a couple of questionable calls that went against UCLA, including a bad offensive foul call on Parker which came in the restricted area and then a bad non-shooting foul on Welsh where he was going up with a putback (probably should have been an and-1). The second foul on Welsh in the first half was also a bit of a ticky-tack foul. Since those fouls directly led to Olesinski and Allen playing considerable minutes, they have to be noted.

Jonah Bolden had some nice moments, including a great drive and pass to Parker in the first half. He was also pretty tenacious following his own misses on the offensive glass, and his length bothered UNC at times on the defensive end. He’s still figuring things out, but the future seems bright there. Aaron Holiday struggled again offensively and it’ll probably be good for him to have one more cupcake and then some considerable time off from the court to internalize the lessons from some of his freshman struggles over the last couple of games before conference play starts. Bryce Alford struggled for stretches against the aggressive ball pressure from North Carolina, but didn't go fully into the tank like he has in the past against athletic defenses and came up with some big shots when the game was still close.

Now UCLA has just one more non-conference game against patsy McNeese State before heading into conference play. Assuming UCLA wins, the Bruins will be 9-4, which is probably not something anyone would have expected a few weeks ago when UCLA was 3-3 after losing to Wake Forest. The Bruins have played with better effort and intensity over the last six games, while also bringing better offensive focus. Now the trick will be to carry that over into conference season against a Pac-12 that suddenly looks pretty deep and fairly strong.


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