Not every game this season is going to conform to a theme, and Friday's loss to Arizona certainly does not conform to any of the losing themes for UCLA this year. The Bruins played mostly hard, mostly focused, and were pretty clearly the better team for 2/3 of the game.
And still they lost, 81-75, in one of the ugliest, most poorly officiated games of the season.
It's going to be hard to separate the outcome of this game from the officiating, so we're not going to bother, but we'll get to that in a second. For most of the game, UCLA defended Arizona very well, and the Wildcats contented themselves taking bad shots or attempting drives right into the teeth of UCLA's defense. Arizona shot just 29% in the first half, and it was certainly a combination of UCLA's defense and Arizona's poor offense that led to that number. It certainly appears as if Sean Miller gets his team wound impossibly tight before matchups with UCLA, and the Wildcats played like it on Friday.
Over the last ten minutes or so of the game, UCLA's defense softened slightly in a few specific areas, but largely, the game turned into a layup line for the Wildcats because of the foul trouble for UCLA's bigs.
The game was poorly officiated both ways, but UCLA absolutely got the worst of it, with Thomas Welsh and Tony Parker both fouling out on phantom, non-call fouls. It wasn't just the fifth foul for each, either -- throughout the game, each was given fouls at various points for ticky-tack fouls that shouldn't have been called. The game was made unwatchable early because of the refereeing, and then the final five minutes were basically a farce because UCLA had zero rim protection.
In total, UCLA was called for 12 more fouls than Arizona, and the Wildcats shot 29 more free throws, and this wasn't a game where there was such a marked difference in playing style that there should have been such a big disparity in fouls and free throws.
The stunning thing was that UCLA could have won. Despite losing both of its centers with just under six minutes to go and the score tied at 63, the Bruins successfully traded baskets with Arizona for the next three minutes, until Isaac Hamilton missed a jumper and then Parker Jackson-Cartwright hit a wide open three on the other end to make the score 74-70. It was kind of a theme from the opening tip that UCLA was inexplicably helping off of Jackson-Cartwright, with Bryce Alford dropping down to show double on a big, but each time, the big would hit Jackson-Cartwright for a wide open three. The guy is hitting over 50% from three in conference and had already hit twice from three in the first half. If the strategy was to help off of him on the three point line, it was a bad strategy, and if that wasn't the strategy, Alford should have been coached not to continue to help off of him.
At any rate, once Jackson-Cartwright hit that three, the complexion of the game changed. With UCLA having no rim protection, Arizona could drive at will, so a two-score deficit was almost unmanageable. Alford missed a three immediately after, and then the game was basically over, with Arizona turning it into a free throw shooting contest down the stretch.
Aside from Aflord's confusing decision to help off of Jackson-Cartwright at various points, the defense was fairly good. Jonah Bolden was a real factor on both defense and offense, and his length, when paired with one of UCLA's stouter big men, made it very difficult for Arizona to get much going near the hoop. When UCLA wasn't in foul trouble, Arizona really wasn't able to score with consistency.
Bolden was also a big factor on offense. He looked much more under control than he has recently, and he took several mid-range jumpers that looked really good. It seems like he shoots better off of one or two dribbles than as a catch and shoot guy. Bolden finished with 10 points on five of seven shooting.
Hamilton, as he has been much of the year, was the story offensively for UCLA. He was excellent in the first half, and a huge part of the reason the Bruins were up by ten. Everyone keeps saying Welsh is automatic on that mid-range jumper, but I'm disturbingly confident in Hamilton's one-handed runner in the lane. I swear he's hitting about 85% on that shot. He desperately needs to tighten up his handle, or UCLA just needs to make sure not to give him the ball in one-on-one situations way up top, but his scoring has been top-notch for most of this season.
Alford and Aaron Holiday both seemed to be pressing this game and both took shots outside of the offense. With Holiday, he just looked over-aggressive, with a couple of drives turning into turnovers because he was just trying to make something happen. Alford took a few shots outside the flow of the offense, including a three that even Bill Walton described as a heat-check immediately after he mdae one, and just looked about the same as he has offensively all year. He's shooting 36% from three this year, his worst percentage as a Bruin, and is shooting 38% overall, while tying with Hamilton for the most shots on the team. Hamilton, for his part, is shooting 39% from three and 49% from the field.
Parker still missed way too many shots right at the rim, but, again, he played hard in his backup role. Perhaps the move to the bench was what he needed, for whatever reason, but he has brought energy each game since he was benched. Welsh was rendered such a non-factor by foul trouble that it's hard to evaluate too much from his game. He probably shouldn't have fouled the guy on his third foul at the end of the first half, but that's about all that can be said.
Gyorgy Goloman had to play too much in this game, and as Walton pointed out (man, that dude was almost halfway lucid for this game), Goloman just isn't ready to play at this level. He was a foul machine, just looking a step slow against the Arizona bigs, and his fouls actually did look pretty legitimate. Prince Ali had a couple of nice moments, including his first made three in quite a while, but also had a terrible drive where he dribbled right into the midsection of an Arizona player, who promptly took the ball away from him.
Arizona obviously played better in the second half, and the Bruins might have collapsed anyway without the foul trouble, but it was a shame to see the Pac-12 referees once again mar a game that could have been much more fun to watch than it was.
UCLA now has a very steep climb if it wants to finish the regular season relatively secure in an at-large bid. At 13-11, the Bruins very likely need to go 6-1 down the stretch, and that just doesn't seem feasible at this point. What's more, even though UCLA played hard in this game, that was pretty predictable -- UCLA has generally played hard in big games this season. The big question is if the Bruins can bring it on Sunday against an Arizona State team that's probably better than its record indicates, and then going forward against the Bay Area schools, the Mountain schools, and the Oregon schools once again. We have our doubts.null