UCLA beat Arizona 87-84 Thursday night in epic fashion, with Bryce Alford draining a game-winning three with the clock winding down to the final seconds, and it was at once a great, dramatic win, and arguably one of the more predictable upsets in recent UCLA history.
Was there really any doubt that UCLA would look like a completely different team Thursday night than the one that went to Washington and laid two monumental eggs? If we've learned anything from watching this year's UCLA team, it's that the Bruins very much have a tendency to get up for the bigger games, and play down to the lesser opponents.
On Thursday, UCLA played up to its talent level, and it was once again impressive to see, as it was against Kentucky and Gonzaga. Again, UCLA proved that it's capable of playing with focus and intensity for most of a game which, if you're not taking every game in a vacuum, makes it all the more frustrating when the team has games like the recent ones in Washington.
In any case, this was an impressive win, and gives UCLA another very good win to go in the collection with Gonzaga and Kentucky. What was probably most impressive about this one was how easily UCLA was able to force Arizona to play its game. Despite Sean Miller's protestations to the contrary, the Wildcats have not been an up-tempo team under him, but Arizona seemed very willing to get up and down the floor with the Bruins, especially in the first half. That really does not appear to be Arizona's game, and while this UCLA team is not as adept as it was, say, two years ago in transition, the Bruins seemed much more comfortable going at a higher pace than the Wildcats did in this game.
Aaron Holiday had a fantastic sequence in the first half that gave UCLA a ton of momentum. Over a stretch of about two minutes in the first half, he assisted Thomas Welsh on a basket with a nice entry pass, made a jumper, stole the inbounds, made a layup, and then a couple of plays later made another jumper. In that stretch, he more or less single-handedly pushed the Bruins from a two-point lead to a six-point lead. He had a much quieter second half, but his offensive slump appears to be completely behind him, and it looks like he's starting to blossom.
The final score doesn't indicate it, because the last four minutes (aside from the last five seconds) were pretty much abysmal, but UCLA controlled this game throughout the first 36 minutes. The Bruins had a 14-point lead with 4:58 to go and a 10-point lead with 2:39 to go, and virtually any time Arizona managed to score a couple of baskets in a row in the second half, UCLA was able to respond with a big basket of their own. There was a sequence where UCLA's defense began to get a little lax in the second half, with Bryce Alford playing well off the ball on the perimeter, which alllowed a couple of easy drives in a row, which cut the UCLA lead to 59-51 with about 12 minutes remaining. On the ensuing trip down the floor, though, Alford found Jonah Bolden on the perimeter for a big three pointer, which put the Bruins back up by 11. It was like that for basically the entire second half -- UCLA responding to Arizona with big baskets in key moments to stop runs.
If the first 36 minutes were marked by generally good offensive decision-making and fair enough defensive intensity, the final four minutes were marked by anything but. UCLA went into clock-killing mode on offense in the final minutes, which led to a lot of dribbling and little ball movement and perhaps predictably, UCLA went on a scoring drought from the 3:02 mark (Tony Parker's layup) to the 22-second mark (when Isaac Hamilton made one of two free throws). That drought was punctuated by a pretty bad sequence where Alford missed a step-back three after dribbling around for about 20 seconds, which was followed immediately by a runout for Arizona that ended with a three-point play for Kadeem Allen that also fouled out Thomas Welsh.
UCLA's defense seemed to get complacent during that stretch, with UCLA losing complete focus on transition defense. This isn't going to be a great defensive team under any circumstances, but the lack of focus in transition can be a killer. Allen got an easy two points out of Tony Parker in transition where Parker didn't turn around when running back down the floor, which led to a foul and free throws for Allen. On the play where Welsh fouled out, he got way too far under the basket before attempting to stop the ball, and while he probably could have had more help from his guards, he played much too tentatively down the stretch with four fouls.
Luckily for UCLA, in a big moment, Alford stepped up with a huge shot. Taking advantage of the switch on the perimeter, Alford got a good matchup to shoot the three and he drained it. He hit several big shots in this game, with the two consecutive threes to close the first half giving the game an entirely different complexion heading into the second half. If we had one complaint about the shot, he really should have given Russell Westbrook a fist bump or something -- you don't leave one of the top five players in the country just standing there looking at you gape-mouthed. Alright, and you could also make a case that he probably should have been running back on defense instead of starting to strut since there was still time on the clock, but whatever, it was a big shot and in a similar situation I probably would have just started hugging people in the stands.
The defensive intensity and effort overall was passable in this game, but this was a game won more on offense than on defense. UCLA's execution throughout the game (again, aside from those last few minutes) was very good. The Bruins shot over 50% in this one and assisted on 21 baskets with three Bruins -- Hamilton, Holiday, and Alford -- all having six assists. For most of the game, UCLA showed great ball movement and shot the ball extremely well from three, making 11 of 22 on the night.
The defense was OK, as we said, but there were a few glaring issues. UCLA looked fairly soft again on the interior, with Kaleb Tarczewski having his way with the post players basically anytime Arizona had the bright idea to throw it into him. The Wildcats looked direction-less on offense, so Tarczewski didn't get the ball nearly as much as he should have, but he did quite a bit with the little he got. UCLA was also pretty poor, especially in the first half, on the defensive glass, with Bolden and Welsh especially getting muscled out of position.
It's critical for Bolden to get stronger. We'll say the same for Welsh, but he's a distinct cut above Bolden in terms of strength and toughness right now, even if he's not quite at the level you'd want him to be. Bolden missed a layup in the first half where he had to just kind of shotput the ball at the rim because he couldn't force his way into better position and didn't have the strength to finish closer to the rim. Bolden has a lot of potential, and if he gets stronger, he has the ability to play at a really high level, but that's going to be his big limiting factor if he doesn't get it corrected.
Prince Ali looked like he's getting progressively more comfortable. He has a tendency to go one-on-one a little too much on offense and gets a little single-minded when he drives, but he's been effective at finishing on his drives this year, so it's not such a bad thing. Defensively, he looks more comfortable than he did at the beginning of the year, and he seems to be one of the players who can be counted on for consistently good effort on that end.
So, we can now pretty safely say that UCLA will play with effort and urgency in big games. The question is now whether the Bruins can play with some close approximation of that effort and urgency against the lesser opponents on the schedule because, again, the Pac-12 is stacked with decent teams who can beat UCLA if the Bruins don't play with intensity. UCLA just beat arguably the best team in the Pac-12, and is fresh off of two losses to arguably the worst two teams in the league. Finding some measure of consistency over the next 15 games is critical if UCLA wants to comfortably make the NCAA Tournament.