The Bruins showed some resiliency in out-lasting a tough Texas A&M team to win the Wooden Legacy Sunday night, 74-67.
This was a real game. It wasn’t a case of UCLA beating a cupcake and you really not being able to take much from it.
Texas A&M is almost certainly an NCAA Tournament team, and safely in the top third of the SEC.
Both the Bruins and the Aggies were clearly fatigued by the second half of this game, after playing three games in four days, and it was almost a case of waiting to see which team would collapse the worst to determine who would win. But to the credit of both teams, neither really collapsed; there were some lapses by both squads, but both found some renewed energy throughout the 40 minutes, and UCLA seemed to have the most in the end.
Fatigue, though, clearly was a factor in many ways, and probably in one very distinct way: A&M’s D.J. Hogg had been shooting 50% from three so far this season and he went 0 for 8 for the game, on mostly open looks, and he looked very sluggish in taking his shot. That was a critical factor in UCLA ultimately getting the win, no question.
Neither team shot really well, in fact, with the Bruins at a 47% clip and A&M at 40%. It wasn’t, actually, a really well-played game, but there were some flashes of greatness, from both teams.
Mostly from UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball. He had a double-double of 16 points and 10 assists (to go along with 5 rebounds and 3 blocks) but the stat line doesn’t come close to representing the impact he had on the game. He was named the Wooden Legacy MVP (47 points and a tournament record 28 assists) and it was absolutely deserving, just from how he affected this championship alone. There were a few sequences in this game, one in the first half and then a couple in the second half, where Ball went on a personal run of scoring, passing and playing some defense that was the difference. He’s made his biggest impact so far this year by his passing, just uncannily able to find shooters open and set for a shot, but he also made a considerable impact Sunday night in his shooting. Even though a couple of his threes were air balls, he did shoot 4 for 9 from three, and none bigger than the step-back three to give UCLA the lead at 65-63 when it appeared Texas A&M was making its last push to secure the game.
A couple other sequences of greatness from other Bruins did the trick, too.
Freshman post T.J. Leaf had a few clutch baskets where he showed advanced touch and poise in pressured situations, one on a jump hook to give UCLA a 62-60 lead, and then just a couple minutes later on a big time bank to make it 67-65. As many have pointed out, if it weren't for Ball, UCLA fans would be lavishing Leaf with praise, and it's a testament to what kind of player he is that he he hasn't shown any signs of selfishness in trying to wrest the limelight from Ball.
Perhaps the most prolonged stretch of flashiness came from Isaac Hamilton in the first half, when he carried the Bruins, scoring 15 points in 6 minutes. You have to give Ball some credit here, too, since Hamilton was the recipient of some nice set-up passes from Ball, but Hamilton also scored on his old-man-type drives. When the rest of the team was cold shooting the ball, luckily Hamilton wasn’t. He ended with the team-high 17 points, getting all of them in the first half.
Center Thomas Welsh had a string of very nice defensive stops down the stretch that secured the win.
Aaron Holiday was typical Aaron Holiday, turning over the ball carelessly, and then going on a tear for a few minutes where he’s the dominant player on the floor, scoring off drives and drawing fouls, and getting steals on the defensive end.
Bryce Alford made a typical Bryce Alford three, in clutch time when it was particularly needed, at the end of the shot clock with a couple minutes left to put UCLA up 70-65 and pretty much ice the game.
What was good here to see was that UCLA didn’t necessarily play better defense than it has so far this season, and it didn’t score 100 points running up and down the court, but it won this game mostly from enough consistency in its half-court offensive execution. There were times when the Bruins got fatigued and took quick shots or errant drives to nowhere, but unlike last season when that kind of trend would unravel into complete disarray, in this game the team returned quickly to a very sharp offensive focus. There was a stretch in the second half when the Bruins executed on offense well over the course of a number of possessions, which was an accomplishment, given that the fatigue was a factor at that point. It went on a 10-0 run and went ahead 60-53. It also sustained some good half-court defense during this period, too, and it was really a treat to watch the team during this sequence. Even when A&M threw its zone at UCLA, the Ball-led Bruins momentarily stuttered, but then found offensive rhythm with its over-passing game and created some good shots. For a team that we all know isn’t necessarily going to win games with its defense, it was good to see it win not by a high-flying offensive circus act but with consistent execution of its halfcourt offense.
Defense wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible. UCLA’s perimeter defense was about as you would expect, and actually A&M’s backcourt wasn’t necessarily that athletic to be able to exploit UCLA’s generally poor on-ball defense. UCLA used mostly man with some zone on defense, and there were some slow close-outs and rotations. The Bruins continue to use that same sagging defense, which sags in its guards to protect the paint – which also tends to leave shooters wide open. It was probably a very good strategy, because it was a good bet that a team would lose its shooting legs in its third game in four days, and A&M did shoot the ball pretty poorly, 7 for 22 from three. But one significant element of UCLA’s defense, and we saw it particularly in this game, was UCLA’s bigs being able to do more rim protecting. If you’re not going to have great perimeter on-ball defense, it’s key that your bigs can clean that up with protecting the rim, and Welsh, Leaf and now freshman post Ike Anigbogu, who’s making his way back from injury, are becoming very capable of providing that. The team had 8 blocked shots on the night, and altered a number of other shots around the basket. It was perhaps the biggest test any element of UCLA’s squad has had so far this season -- UCLA’s frontcourt matching up against a legitimate NCAA Tournament frontcourt in Texas A&M’s, and even though the Aggies had some moments, UCLA’s bigs more than held their own. Against a good rebounding team in A&M, UCLA out-rebounded them 42-36. UCLA probably allowed too many second chances with an excessive amount of Aggie offensive rebounds (13). But overall one of the main concerns about this team would be whether UCLA’s frontcourt would be able to hold up against a good and athletic opposing frontcourt, and it passed the test Sunday night.
Here’s the real upside of this team. Ball doesn’t even look completely comfortable and loose yet. He still looks a little tight, even most of the time. We anticipate – and hope – that the Ball we’ve seen so far is just scratching the surface, and there is some considerable upside during the course of this season as he gets more comfortable. This was probably a big step for him against A&M, realizing he could face a legitimate NCAA Tournament team and still play his game the way he’s capable and succeed. He missed six of his first seven shots, and had five turnovers, clearly shaking off the nerves of playing against perhaps the best team he’s ever faced in his life. The hope is that Ball’s confidence continues to build over the three weeks as the Bruins face even more formidable competition, particularly Kentucky this Saturday (Dec. 3rd). If he continues to improve – and his style and approach to the game continues to rub off on the rest of the team like it already has – that’s probably the biggest potential for this UCLA team reaching heights of greatness this season.