T.J. Leaf (USA Today)

Leaf Leads UCLA To Road Win at WSU

Feb. 2 -- It was a little too close for comfort at points, but ultimately, UCLA pulled it out against Washington State on Wednesday night...

Thanks to a late surge fueled by the play of Aaron Holiday, UCLA put away Washington State on Wednesday night 95-79. The game was very close for stretches, with the Cougars pulling as close as 50-48 at about the 15-minute mark, but ultimately the combination of UCLA's impressive shooting ability and timely ability to create turnovers (8 steals in this game) were enough to give the Bruins a comfortable margin of victory.

At just under the 8-minute mark, UCLA had a 10-point lead, and Holiday then took over to basically end the game. First, he drove the lane, got fouled, and made his two free throws. Just under a minute later, he raced down the court to block Conor Clifford's shot (Clifford is listed at 7 feet tall), just as Clifford was about to score an easy layup. On the ensuing possession, he forced a turnover and turned it into a dunk. It was a demoralizing stretch for Washington State, and the Cougars would get no closer than 12 points the rest of the way.

Washington State is truly so bad that a team as talented as UCLA can put together a three or four-minute stretch of good defense and put the game away with relative ease. Obviously, it would have been nice, given recent events, for UCLA to put together more than that three or four-minute stretch of good defense (since it would be good to see this team actually play very good defense for, say, at least a half), but the Bruins didn't need much more than that to beat this very bad basketball team. Heck, if UCLA had even shot threes even half as well as they are typically capable (just 3 of 16 in this one), the game probably would have been a blowout much sooner, and they wouldn't have even needed that stretch of good defense.

Beyond Holiday, T.J. Leaf was tremendous, and was seemingly unable to miss. He scored a lot of easy dunks and layups thanks to Washington State's bad defense and Lonzo Ball's vision, but he also made a variety of tough turnarounds and mid-range jumpers. His percentage on mid-range jumpers has to rival, if not surpass, Thomas Welsh's at this point, but he has so much more versatility to his offensive game that it barely gets noticed. 

Welsh, for his part, was good on the offensive end, but gave up a lot to Clifford on the defensive end. Clifford has a weird offensive game, looking like he's almost scooping shots at the basket, and his bulk seemed to cause Welsh issues as well. In any case, it was another game where UCLA's interior defense was lackluster at best. Clifford was 8 of 9 from the field and Ike Iroegbu, who did most of his damage on drives to the hoop, was 8 of 12. There was just very little resistance, which was due to a combination of factors ranging from weak play inside, some poor defense against dribble penetration, poor transition defense, and some poor pick and roll defense. Washington State is the third worst offensive team in the Pac-12, ahead of just Stanford and Oregon State, but UCLA let the Cougars shoot an eFG% of nearly 60%, and still managed to give up 7 offensive rebounds (out of 32 opportunities) to literally the third worst offensive rebounding team in the country.

Ball was, somewhat quietly, very good in this game, even if he didn't shoot threes as well as he typically does. We love that UCLA is clearly telling him to get more steals, since that is something reasonable the Bruins can do to actually improve their defense, and he responded with 5 in this game. Again, he just shows incredible anticipation, and as the announcers put it, he seems to know where players are going to go before they even know where they're going to go. He had a couple of steals where it was just pure basketball IQ, either standing in the obvious passing lane, or anticipating how the player with the ball would turn. 

For a positive sign, or perhaps a sign that Washington State is simply that bad, neither Bryce Alford nor Isaac Hamilton made much a positive impact in this one, and UCLA still won by 16 points. The two combined to go just 1 of 8 from three, and Alford in particular looked like he was pressing a little bit on his shot. His first couple went long, and then it looked like shortened up his stroke and hit front rim on the next. We're still in just mini-slump territory with him, but it bears monitoring, as he is coming off an incredible hot streak.

Gyorgy Goloman wasn't credited with a three in the official box score, but I seem to distinctly remember him hitting one (perhaps it turned into a long two?) In any case, he launched that directly into the face of his haters. He was OK in this one. There was a stretch where it almost looked like UCLA was trying to feed him on offense, but thankfully that didn't last more than a possession or two. Defensively, he helped to shore things up when he came in, and in the absence of Ike Anigbogu, he did well.

Playing short-handed on the road, and with none of the usual three-point explosiveness that we've come to expect, UCLA still won by 16 points, and despite the game being close at points, it never really felt in doubt. Yes, we still have all of the same concerns about this team. The defense was once again bad, and for maybe the 10th straight game, UCLA's defensive efficiency got worse after this game. That said, Leaf looking like the Leaf of three weeks ago was a good sign, and hopefully signals that he's broken through the freshman wall. At this point, UCLA fans are going to have to count on this team firing on all cylinders offensively come Tournament time, and Leaf rounding back into form is certainly a step in that direction. 

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