UCLA played one of its most complete games of the season Sunday night, beating Arizona State 78-65 thanks to steady, consistent effort throughout the game from both the starters and the bench. It was probably the best overall performance for the Bruins since the Arizona homestand over a month ago, and it was sorely needed, with every game from here on out being effectively a must-win.
Not that one is needed, but this game should act as an effective argument for steady, focused offensive play and good defensive effort. The Bruins withstood a three-point barrage from the Sun Devils in the first half, when ASU shot 7 of 13 from three, and still led 37-35 going into the break thanks largely to very efficient offensive play and generally decent defense -- yes, ASU got some open looks from three, but by and large, UCLA actually made the Sun Devils work for their shots. ASU naturally cooled off a bit in the second half, and UCLA continued its solid effort, which led to the Bruins pulling away late.
Again, this is why this team is frustrating. The Bruins this year have shown more than a few times that they are capable of playing with focus and effort, and when they play with both of those qualities, they're tough to beat. That UCLA hasn't been able to summon this effort consistently is why the Bruins are still having to play their way into the NCAA Tournament with just six games remaining.
That said, it was good to see the team not completely tank after Friday's game, when the Bruins showed very good effort but still managed to lose to Arizona, thanks in large part to some truly egregious officiating. From the opening tip Sunday, it was obvious that UCLA was ready and engaged. You had to look no further than the defense Bryce Alford played on the first few possessions, where he moved his feet, stayed in front of his man, and helped force ASU into a couple of tough possessions. When Alford gives a decent effort on defense, that's typically a very good sign for UCLA's chances.
Overall, this was one of Alford's better games of the season, even if it wasn't reflected in his own scoring. He facilitated well, forced fewer shots, and kept the offense focused and under control. Late in the game, when it was obvious ASU had no answer for Tony Parker on the interior, Alford and the guards worked the ball into him for easy buckets or fouls. Alford had 11 assists in the game, and despite his continued poor shooting, it was a really good game for him.
Jonah Bolden might have been the real story of the game, though. For the second straight game, Bolden was a real factor on offense. UCLA has made an obvious attempt to get Bolden away from the perimeter for stretches of games, and he's been really effective in the mid-range, either shooting 10 to 12-footers or facilitating from that position. He also nailed a three in this game, snagged nine rebounds, and was a huge part of UCLA's good interior defense. ASU scored just 18 points in the paint in this game, and it actually felt like considerably fewer. Bolden had two blocks, but his length affected plenty more shots than that.
Like Bolden, Prince Ali has also played two of his best games of the season in the last two games. Against Arizona, he was a little hit or miss, but he played good defense, and then Sunday, he was significantly better than that, scoring 12 very efficient points and playing solid enough defense to stay on the court for 22 minutes. He actually recorded two assists, which is simply breathtaking, considering that he had five all year before this, and hadn't recorded an assist in 12 games (that he's played in).
Isaac Hamilton was once again pretty automatic on his mid-range floaters and jumpers. He also rebounded well, including getting two off the offensive glass, which is probably more a product of ASU's lack of interior presence than Hamilton suddenly becoming a rebounding force. It is worth mentioning, though, that Hamilton is averaging 4.3 rebounds per game this year.
Aaron Holiday appeared to be pressing again on Sunday after scuffling a bit against Arizona on Friday, at least on offense. On defense, he was a significant part of the great defensive effort against Tra Holder, who had one of his worst performances of the season, shooting just 2 of 12.
Thomas Welsh probably didn't take advantage of ASU's lack of interior size as well as he should have. He had a relatively quiet 26 minutes, scoring just eight points on seven shots and snagging just five rebounds. Welsh has made a lot of progress from last year, but he really needs to spend the offseason getting stronger and developing a little bit more of a low post game so he, like Parker, can take advantage of teams like ASU, that don't have any real size. Welsh did hit his mid-range shot more than he has lately, which was good to see.
Parker, for his part, played somewhat well on offense, but did turn the ball over a somewhat astonishing four times -- astonishing mostly because he only played 13 minutes. Honeslty, though, we came away with a pretty positive appraisal for Parker in this game. He seemed focused and engaged, and ASU really didn't have a response for him in the second half. UCLA probably could have gotten the ball into him even more than they did. In any case, it's been a real positive that Parker has remained engaged since the benching. If anything, it seems like he's played harder since going to the bench than he was playing before the benching.
So, here's where things stand. UCLA is now 14-11, which is remarkably similar to the record UCLA had last year after 25 games, when the Bruins were 15-10. At that point, UCLA went 4-2 down the stretch to finish the regular season 19-12. The Bruins then went 1-1 in the Pac-12 Tournament to finish the season 20-13, and then earned a surprise bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Pac-12 is probably marginally better than it was last year, and UCLA certainly has a few better wins this year than it had last year, but we have to figure the calculation is roughly the same. The Bruins probably need to finish 5-1, and it would help immensely if one of those wins came against Oregon at home. If that happens, UCLA could be on the right side of the bubble, even without making much noise in the Pac-12 Tournament, but it would probably help to win a game.
It should be noted, though, that when UCLA went on its run to finish the year last year, it swept the last three games against the worst three teams in the league, Washington, Washington State, and USC. This year, the road is much tougher, with a road game against Cal, the home game against Oregon, and the home slate against the Mountain schools still on the schedule. If UCLA is going to finish 5-1, it's going to take arguably the best stretch of basketball this team will have played this year.