(USA Today)

UCLA Finds Its Superpower Against Oregon, 82-79

Feb. 10 -- In a season of some great offensive performances, UCLA plays its best defensive half of the year and shows its complete potential in beating No. 5 Oregon, 82-79...

UCLA staged an epic second-half comeback against Oregon to win in the last few minutes, 82-79, and while Lonzo Ball’s late heroic offense was a catalyst, the real hero was a stretch of the best defense UCLA has played yet this season.

The Bruins came back from what was at one time a 19-point deficit.  UCLA made some in-roads throughout the game to chip away at Oregon’s advantage.  It did so with little flurries of offense. Bryce Alford got hot at the end of the first half, hitting three threes, to get that 19-point margin down to single digits at half, 48-39.  The Bruins decided to get Thomas Welsh some touches in the second half, and he answered the call, scoring 10 of his 12 points on 5-of-6 clutch shooting.  Ball absolutely made a huge difference when he finally caught fire offensively in the second half, scoring 10 points in the last 10 minutes of the game, and in dramatic fashion, carrying UCLA’s offense to the finish line.  

But that would have all been for naught unless UCLA’s defense stepped up in the second half to play its most stifling of the season.

At the 15:11 mark, Oregon was up 62-47 and pretty much doing whatever it wanted on offense. UCLA was playing its usual brand of defense, which is a sagging man or zone, allowing open looks from three and lazily permitting open lanes in the paint with poor on-ball defense, help defense and, of course, blocking out.  Oregon’s Dillon Brooks started the second half hitting three threes, with T.J. Leaf sagging off him or losing him altogether. 

This season, UCLA had played spurts of decent defense in a handful of games. But it almost felt at times that it was just a random thing that happened to come together, rather than a result of coaching or a team-wide commitment to playing defense. 

But the defense UCLA put together in the second half against Oregon felt different.  Let’s not fantasize and think that the Bruins suddenly became a great defensive team, with great fundamentals and a sophisticated, advanced defensive technique and mindset.   That didn’t happen.

What merely happened is that, for whatever reason, UCLA started to play hard defensively.  Over the course of almost 13 minutes, UCLA’s defenders got after it and, not coincidentally, Oregon scored just 10 points, while UCLA scored 28.   In the middle of that stretch, there was a four-minute period when Oregon was stuck on 70 and UCLA surged past on a 9-0 run to take the lead. 

The Ducks were baffled, clearly.  All of those shots that were available for 2/3s of the game were suddenly taken away by UCLA.   They were completely out-of-sync offensively.  They’ve never had a real go-to interior offensive game, but rely so much on their perimeter scoring.  UCLA obliged for most of this game, giving the Ducks open outside looks.  Up until that 15-minute mark of the second half, Oregon was shooting 56% from the field but ended the game at 42%.  Over the last 14 minutes of the game, Oregon averaged just .65 points per possession. To put that in perspective, Gonzaga leads the country in defensive efficiency by allowing just .844 points per possession.   And it wasn’t even that they suddenly were missing their shots. They couldn’t even get off a decent shot.  

The difference for UCLA was just playing hard defensively.  It wasn’t sophisticated; it wasn’t suddenly that UCLA played great fundamental defense to the man, or great team help defense. It’s simply that they actually started to play hard defensively.   

Even with how good UCLA’s offense has been, the second half was easily the most satisfying stretch of Bruin basketball this season. You could feel the difference.  It was like in super heroes movies when the super hero first gets his superpower.  At about the 10-minute mark of the second half, even with the Ducks still up by 10 or so, after Oregon had struggled on a number of offensive possessions to get a good shot, you could feel the inevitability of UCLA winning this game. 

This might sound crazy, but defense is UCLA’s superpower. It’s what takes them from being this awesome offensive team that probably would be unable to consistently beat the best teams in the country to one that could beat just about anyone.

The Bruins, for the first time this season, felt like a complete team.

There was one tactical defensive move that did make a big impact, too.  At about the 10:40 mark, UCLA switched Ball onto Brooks.  On what looked to be the first Oregon possession with Ball guarding Brooks, Brooks drove the lane, but with Ball on him, and Ike Anigbogu then stepped in to block the shot and Ball was off going the other direction for a length-of-the-court jaunt and a lay-in.  UCLA’s transition game had literally been turned off by Oregon for most of the game, but funny, good defense is what re-started UCLA’s transition offense.

I’m telling you – it’s a superpower.  

Ball pretty much shut down Brooks the rest of the way.  The Ducks’ leading scorer went silent.  Not only did he miss the three shots he took the rest of the way, he was pretty much non-existent in the game.   So, while many of the headlines boasted Ball’s offense is what took UCLA to the promised land against the Ducks, really it was just as much his defense. 

T.J. Leaf, Dillon Brooks and Lonzo Ball (USA Today)

Also, Aaron Holiday alternately matched up with Oregon guard Payton Pritchard, who had also been hurting UCLA throughout the game, and then Dylan Ennis, and took away each of their offenses. 

There was a big Oregon possession at about the 6-minute mark when UCLA’s defense really stepped up and fueled the late-game push that took the Bruins over the top.  UCLA was down 70-66, but the Bruins were clearly grabbing hold of the game’s momentum.  Oregon had two shots and two shot clocks during the possession, but couldn’t get a good look.   Ball was smothering Brooks, Holiday was making Ennis disappear and Bryce Alford closed out on Pritchard to force him to put the ball on the ground, and Holiday got a steal and UCLA had a break the other way.  Holiday finished on an acrobatic lay-in and was fouled, Pauley Pavilion was rocking and the game was pretty much over.  

It’s an amazing thing, this defensive stuff.  Even if you don’t have advanced defensive technique or tactics, so much of it is just about effort.  UCLA’s defensive effort for most of the season has been poor, and typical of Steve Alford’s UCLA teams.  But the defensive effort and intensity the Bruins found collectively in the second half of this game is a season-changer. 

UCLA had tried basically what are some defensive gimmicks throughout the year – the zone, some trapping presses, four-guard lineup, the sagging, etc. But the defense that did it was the plain old man, with each man playing hard, fighting through screens, anticipating spots on the floor, closing out with alacrity.  There was some defensive possessions in this game in the second half when UCLA actually looked like it extended its defense instead of playing its typical sagging style. 

While we gave Ball and Holiday credit, we have to give a little bit of credit to Bryce Alford, too. Yes, defensively.  When UCLA was playing some pretty poor defense in the first 2/3s of this game, there were a couple of possessions when Bryce played hard defensively.   He wasn’t successful necessarily; in fact, there was one sequence when Bryce worked as hard as he possibly could to stay in front of his man but he still got beat on a drive.  But it was some of the most energy we’ve seen Bryce commit to defense during his career, and we’re thinking it helped ignite the team-wide surge in defensive intensity.

Also, dole out some credit to Anigbogu.  His energy playing post defense also seems to rev up UCLA’s team defense.  For one thing, Anigbogu is athletic enough to hedge and he did it in this game with energy.  In fact, at one point he fell down while hedging he went at it so aggressively (and the falling-down hedge still worked).   He also protects the rim well, and when UCLA’s defense was aggressively extending itself to not allow Oregon to get a shot, that rim protection on a couple possessions in the second half was the ultimate answer – which also led to some easy transition points.

Perhaps the difference here with defense for UCLA is just a mentality that comes from a style of defense. Employing the sagging style, either in man or zone, almost concedes psychologically that UCLA is a poor defensive team that can’t get up in its opponent and shut it down, but merely relies on the pure luck of opponents not being able to shoot from three.   When you allow your perimeter players to extend and not sag, stay with their man, yeah, you’re probably going to concede some back-doors and easy baskets, and athletically UCLA is just going to get beat off the dribble at times.  But what it does mentally -- make UCLA play with intensity on defense overall – is worth it.

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Here’s another significant takeaway, too: This wasn’t one of UCLA’s better offensive games.  Ball had just one assist in this game, his season low, and didn’t even get that one until late in the game.  T.J. Leaf finished under double digits (with 8 points) for just the second time this season.   The Bruins went one-on-one for most of the game and lacked their usual extra-pass mentality.  Give it credit in the second half for getting Welsh some touches, but for the most part this wasn’t a good offensive game for these Bruins.

So, to review:  UCLA didn’t even play really well offensively compared to what it’s capable of, and UCLA’s defense turned in its best performance of the season because of just a ten-minute stretch when it didn’t do anything particularly sophisticated on defense but just played hard. 

And that, along with the supreme talent of Lonzo Ball, was good enough to beat the No. 5 team in the country. 

The win breathed some life into UCLA’s Pac-12 conference chances.  What looked like a near-invincible Duck team now is only a game ahead of UCLA in the conference standings (Arizona is 11-1, Oregon 10-2 and UCLA 9-3), and even though they have a much easier conference road the rest of the way, it provides UCLA a glimmer of a chance, as opposed to how a loss would have pretty much ended any regular season conference hopes.  It also changes the perspective on the season a bit -- that UCLA now has the kryptonite on how to beat the Ducks, say, in the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.

This game makes it apparent that there is quite a bit of upside for the rest of the season then. What appeared a bit to be a team that had peaked or was getting successfully scouted out, and perhaps was collectively on the verge of collapsing, now has a whole new realm of possibility.  What if UCLA actually played defense like this more often and for longer spurts and UCLA’s offense actually recaptured its usual extra-pass form?

Even after all the great offensive performances this season, for the first time since October this was the game that should give Bruin fans true hope that the team could put it together and make a great run here at the end of the season. They’ve found their superpower and it’s defense, and it makes them complete. 

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