It's one of those things: You're unsure just how good Cal State Northridge actually is, so it's difficult to put this game in context.
But on Sunday night they were good enough to both threaten and stay close to the far-more talented Bruins, with UCLA ultimately distancing itself enough, 102-87.
It was also a tale of two different halves, with the Bruins playing relatively poorly in the first, shooting 39%, committing 11 turnovers and racking up personal fouls. Playing tough defense and forcing UCLA to play sloppily, the Matadors held a 42-40 halftime lead.
But UCLA got on track in the second half, shooting 59% and scoring 62 points. It was clear coach Steve Alford sent a message to the team at halftime, and their energy picked up on both ends of the court. Perhaps UCLA was high off hitting 18 of 30 three-pointers against Pacific Friday night, but they started 2 of 10 in the first half against CSUN and then in the second half took the ball to the basket more, and successfully.
The tone of the second half was established by how freshman point guard Lonzo Ball started it -- nailing a three-pointer, then taking the ball the length of the court for a dunk. After an Isaac Hamilton basket, UCLA immediately went up by 5, 47-42, their biggest lead of the game to that point, to start the half. Right then you got the sense that the second half would be different than the first.
Bryce Alford, too, had a different second half, scoring 15 of his 20 points in the last 20 minutes, after going 1 of 6 in the first 20.
UCLA clearly got instructions at halftime to take the ball to the rim. They took 10 threes in the first half, going 2 of 10, and then attempted just six in the second half, hitting three of those. Hamilton and Aaron Holiday kind of led the charge in taking the ball to the basket, with Holiday leading a flurry with about 8 minutes left where he just literally took his man off the dribble for a lay-up three consecutive times. Hamilton finished with a team-leading 22, and Holiday with 13.
Hamilton and Thomas Welsh kept the Bruins in it in the first half. Welsh had 9 first-half rebounds, and three key blocks which keyed a 8-0 UCLA run at about the 14-minute mark. Both were probably the biggest factors in keeping the Bruins close to the Matadors, with Welsh's blocks leading to some easy transition points for the Bruins.
Gyorgy Goloman made some good contributions coming off the bench, with 12 points and 8 rebounds in just 13 minutes.
UCLA had seven players in double figures, with the the fab frosh duo, Ball and T.J. Leaf, finishing with 13 and 12. Ball dished six assists, but against 5 turnovers.
Probably the critical takeaways for this game were much of the same themes we've seen from Steve Alford's teams since he's been in Westwood -- uneven intensity and defense. Neither were greatly evident in the first half, with Northridge shooting almost 52% in the first half mostly because they were able to get to the basket due to UCLA's poor on-ball defense. UCLA also couldn't withstand CSUN's first-half defensive pressure, with UCLA forced into 11 turnovers.
UCLA played mostly man defense and it was, for the most part, lax. In the halfcourt, Northridge is a drive team, with some pretty strong athletes who can take the ball to the basket. And they seemed to get the memo that UCLA hasn't figured out how to defend a ball screen. Leaf is actually hedging, and that's good, but when UCLA's guards have to negotiate a ball screen most of the time it leads to an open look. Alford is particularly not good at this, and you could see the Matadors making an effort to go at him specifically.
UCLA used some zone, but it's definitely a work in progress. It's a 3-2, leaving Welsh and Leaf on the baseline, making them mostly responsible for closing out on shooters in the corners. Northridge had a few possessions where they moved the ball around UCLA's zone and the defense appeared to have a great deal of room to it, with some laziness on rotations from UCLA's backcourt.
There's also the poor defense in transition. UCLA has been notorious for it the last few years and it was evident again in this game. There were too many Bruins just not hustling to get back on defense in transition. And it's not just getting back to prevent a lay-up, but it's also a lack of awareness of picking up their men in semi-transition. Northridge scored a good number of baskets in semi-transition when Bruins were back, but having not yet picked up their man. During the stretch drive at the end of the game, Alford called a timeout and specifically yelled at his team about allowing lay-ups.
There's also another theme to Alford's UCLA teams, and that's the Green Light. Everyone on the team has it, and if for whatever reason an individual isn't shooting well he'll still just keep putting up the ball. It's just not Bryce Alford, either, but every player on the roster. While Welsh's rebounding and blocks really were a catalyst to keeping UCLA in the first half, it was making up for his poor first-half shooting, going 3 of 10. Just about whenever Welsh catches the ball within 15 feet of the basket he's putting it up, and he hurried some shots in this game. Alford, Ball and Holiday will put up 23-footers with little or no room to get off the shot. Typically what happens is that someone will get a little hot and make a couple of shots, and then they'll put up more shots that are hurried or with no room. There's no sense of good shot selection, especially when someone thinks they're hot. Hamilton, who is a volume shooter, perhaps displays the best shot selection on the team, and that's not a good sign.
As we said, we're not completely sure how good Northridge is. It was clear, though, that they have some mature players that are tough and play hard, and that bothered UCLA.
We have to say, too, that how many fouls were called in this game was atrocious, a total of 53 combined for both teams.
It's pretty clear that UCLA's offense is a potent one, and can put up a great deal of points in a flurry. But when a team isn't humming offensively it needs to rely on its defense to keep it in a game. Against Northridge, UCLA's offense wasn't in the groove, committing sloppy turnovers and missing the wide-open threes it made against Pacific Friday night. There are going to be moments -- games -- like this in any season. The hope is that the pre-season theme of Alford emphasizing defense and consistent intensity does manifest itself this season, and is enough to get the Bruins through some games when their offense can't.