UCLA beat Arizona State 81-74 last night, and you could legitimately make the argument that it was a more encouraging win than UCLA's over Arizona on Thursday. It was virtually a given that the Bruins would bring the requisite effort against the top ten Wildcats, but it was much more an unknown how much effort the Bruins would bring against the unheralded Sun Devils.
Bring the effort and toughness UCLA did, and it was a very good thing the Bruins decided to, since Arizona State is pretty clearly a very well-coached team that plays hard for 40 minutes.
The first 15 or so minutes of the game were truly fun to watch, with the Bruins playing some really good basketball on both ends. From the 12:01 mark to the 5:19 mark in the first half, the Bruins methodically went from a 10-10 tie to a 30-18 lead thanks to some great perimeter defense and really focused, attentive offensive basketball.
During that stretch, Prince Ali got some extended minutes, and it can't be understated how key that was. For several minutes, Ali was paired with Aaron Holiday on the perimeter, and the two absolutely harried and harassed Arizona State's guards, forcing several turnovers, including two by Tra Holder. On the offensive end, during that same stretch, Isaac Hamilton continued his long stretch of controlled, generally very good offensive basketball, pouring in seven points in a little under two minutes.
At the end of the run, when Bryce Alford hit a three to extend the lead to 12, it looked like UCLA might be in line for a blowout win, which would have of course been an impressive statement coming off the Arizona win.
The run was keyed by the combination of Ali, Holiday, and Jonah Bolden and their impressive defense and rebounding, and it really ended when both Ali and Bolden were subbed out at the 4:32 mark for Alex Olesinski and Holiday. From that point on, UCLA was outscored 16-8 to close the half, losing all of the substantial first half lead they had built.
It's never fun to single out players who are trying their best, but Olesinski and Noah Allen really can't play at this point in their careers at this level. Only in truly desperate circumstances should they get competitive minutes, and the last five minutes of the half were not desperate circumstances. Yes, Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker both had two fouls, but Welsh sat for the entire final eight minutes of the first half, and Parker sat for the last 2:20. It just really doesn't make sense to sit Welsh for a fifth of the game on the off chance he might pick up another foul.
But we also don't want to pin that end of the half entirely on the choice to bring in Olesinski and Allen. That certainly didn't help matters, but UCLA's perimeter defense also went very soft in that stretch when Ali came out of the game which allowed Arizona State to find room for open threes.
The second half was much more competitive than the first 15 minutes of the first half. Neither team was able to generate a significant lead -- as soon as Arizona State would go up five or six points, UCLA would respond with better defense and a couple of nice offensive trips to tie it up again or bring it close. UCLA's perimeter defense never again rose to the level of that run in the first half, and ASU was able to get more open looks, particularly through the first ten minutes of the second half. It was actually a really fun half of basketball, which also saw the emergence of Welsh as a tough interior player.
This was probably the most impressive game that Welsh has played as a Bruin, and he was a huge key in the second half, particularly down the stretch. With the game knotted up at 74 with a little over a minute to go, Tony Parker missed a point blank layup. Despite not having great position, Welsh skyed over everyone for the offensive board, using his body to get space without fouling, and then immediately kicked the ball out to Aaron Holiday, who buried the three. That play was indicative of the kind of game Welsh had -- he had several really contested rebounds like that, and showed more overall toughness, on defense and on the glass, than he's shown this year.
Just eye-balling the plus/minus, the best lineup UCLA had in this game was the one that included Holiday, Ali, Bolden, and Welsh, and we don't think that's an accident. Pretty clearly, those are the best defensive players at their respective positions. Bolden had a very good game, providing additional length on the interior to prevent easy layups while also showing again that he's a very accomplished passer.
UCLA has some tough rotation choices to make going forward. Bolden has been playing at a higher level over the last month than at the beginning of the season, and he's one of the better athletes on the team, and is much more of a true four than either Parker or Welsh. On the other hand, if Bolden does, say, crack the starting lineup, the obvious choice to push to the bench would be Parker, and we can't imagine a situation where that demotion wouldn't push Parker completely into the tank for the rest of the season. It's a predicament, but finding more consistent minutes for Bolden would appear to be a priority.
Parker, for his part, was focused and energized for the beginning of the first half, but foul trouble more or less did away with that. He scored six of his nine total points in the first six minutes and looked good doing it. After he got his first foul, though, he didn't look the same and had very little involvement in the game the rest of the way. His free throws are a real liability at this point too -- he missed two front ends in the first half, and over the last nine games he's shooting under 40% from the free throw line.
If Holiday's shot was the go-ahead bucket with a little over a minute to go in the game, Alford's three, which came with 24 seconds left, was the dagger. It was a really well-designed play, with UCLA bleeding off the vast majority of the clock before Alford curled to about the same point on the floor as his game-winner against Arizona for another big three to put the Bruins up 80-74. After the last two games, it's probably fair to say that Alford is out of his shooting slump, as he's shooting 55% over the last two games. His defense was once again a liability, and he was a big part of the reason why Kodi Justice didn't miss a shot until the final minute of the game when he was heaving up desperation shots, but he's also made big shots in key moments this season. The question with him is always going to be whether his value on the offensive end negates his issues on the defensive end, and game by game, the answer can change.
So, UCLA completed the sweep with two altogether pretty impressive performances at home. Both wins were marked by generally good effort, and we had a worry that UCLA would revert to sleepwalking against ASU, since the Sun Devils didn't have any real name value coming into the game. The Bruins didn't succumb to that sort of lackadaisical play, and that's a credit to them, and hopefully a sign of some growth. At this point, though, we're in full wait-and-see mode until we can see sustained effort for more than just a couple of home games in a row. If the Bruins can bring this same effort against USC on Wednesday, and then take it on the road against the Oregon schools the following weekend, then we'll probably be ready to start talking about the mental growth of this team again.