This time of the year, while we’re completely of the mindset – “Win and advance” -- there were a number of irksome things about UCLA’s win over USC in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament Thursday, 76-74.
-- It was an out-of-sync mess, for both UCLA and USC, for most of the game.
-- There definitely was an element that UCLA wasn’t itself, on a team level and a player level.
-- UCLA got very little scoring out of transition, which left it up to its disjointed halfcourt to score points.
-- Lonzo Ball was in foul trouble in the first half, so he sat for 7 minutes of it, and a Ball-less game makes for one that has a chance to degrade into a mess.
-- And I hit my ceiling of tolerance on Bill Walton.
If you were watching the game on TV, and you wondered to yourself why this game was annoying you so excessively, you probably had the audio of your TV on. You probably don’t usually listen much to Walton in his nonsensical commentary, but Thursday night he took his crazy shtick to a new level. We have to say this, get it off our chest, and purge it from our aura (in Waltonesque terms) so our souls can move on: Walton has become an embarrassment to UCLA. He’s doing this as some shtick he’s been told gets him attention and ratings by some marketing executives in suits in a board room that live by pie charts. But he needs to show some self-respect and dignity, especially as such a self-prescribed representative of UCLA.
Okay, let’s move on to the game.
UCLA and USC, in playing each other so much now, pretty much resorted to a kind of scorched-earth approach and mentality against each other in their third meeting. It felt a little bit like both UCLA’s Steve Alford and USC’s Andy Endfield threw a number of tactical elements at each other with the intention of disrupting the flow of their opponent and it definitely did that, but it also tended to disrupt the flow of their own teams, too, respectively. The players, also, almost seemed like they were tired of playing against each other and had the mentality at times that they were just going to put the ball up without necessarily a good look.
The tone and rhythm of the game was established when Lonzo Ball got his second foul at the 15:47 mark of the first half, with UCLA up 8-0. With Ball having to sit, UCLA was out-of-sync, and not just not on offense but also on defense, without him at the top of the 1-2-2 zone.
So, UCLA was a bit off-kilter and combine that with USC looking tight and missing a ton of shots early on – mostly wide-open shots – and you had a game that started off a bit awry and never got on track.
Luckily, UCLA is just a better team, and Ball played the entire second half after playing just 13 minutes in the first, and that provided UCLA enough stability to emerge with the win.
If you look at the stat sheet, and see that USC shot 39% and UCLA 41%, you’d think this was a bit of a defensive struggle, and that both teams’ defenses were effective. But strangely, that really wasn’t the case. Both teams employed a zone pretty liberally, but neither were greatly effective. UCLA went to it early, as soon as Ball went to the bench with his second foul, and then switched back and forth between it and man, but it was UCLA’s zone that was mostly the defensive culprit in allowing USC to stay in the game.
USC, in fact, climbed back into the game because of the ineffectiveness of UCLA’s zone in the first half. The Bruins had scrappily built a 14-point lead by 5 minutes remaining in the first half while trying to manage Ball’s foul trouble. Bryce Alford had started the game with his strange off-balance shooting stroke that he resorts to at times, but at the five-minute mark UCLA executed a nice halfcourt offense and Ball kicked out to Alford, who, squared up and hit a perfect three, to give UCLA a 32-18 lead. At this point it felt like UCLA had gotten on track, it had weathered the storm of Ball’s foul trouble and it should be able to put away the cold-shooting Trojans.
But UCLA’s zone prevented that. At just about that time, UCLA’s zone was, for a few possessions, actually, a mess. It had allowed an easy lay-in, and then a couple of open looks from three. At the 3:49 mark, USC had a possession where they pushed it up in transition, and Elijah Stewart hit a wide-open three with UCLA being so bad getting into its zone it was imperceptible what defense UCLA was actually employing. On the next possession, UCLA was in the zone again, and it was moving in slow motion when USC found Stewart in the corner again for an open three. The score was now cut to 32-26, and from then on the tone was set – for the next 23 minutes or so this game would go about its meandering, off-kilter way.
There were some Ball oases in there, though, that truly were the difference in this game. In that period toward the end of the first half, Ball hit two consecutive three-pointers, one from what looked like almost 30 feet, that cushioned UCLA’s lead at 38-27. Those Ball moments really were the edge UCLA had in this game. With the refs being quick to blow their whistle in the first half, which led to Ball’s quick second foul, the main reason UCLA won this game was that Ball stayed out of foul trouble for most of the second half and played all 20 minutes. Give Steve Alford credit for managing Ball's fould trouble effectively so that it wasn't a factor in the second half.
Give Isaac Hamilton and Thomas Welsh some credit for being the only people on the floor who could make some shots in the first half. Luckily, Hamilton made some bad shots, hitting three awkward threes and that propelled UCLA initially to that 14-point lead. Other than Hamilton and Welsh's catch-and-shoot mid-range deadeye, both teams started the game with a combined shooting of 2 for 22. The entire USC team was rushing its shots, opting for ill-timed and off-balance looks, and Alford, Ball and Aaron Holiday combined for 1 for 8.
The second half was pretty much USC being very good at getting back in transition and not allowing UCLA any easy fast-break points, and then playing pretty good halfcourt defense, limiting UCLA shooting to 38% from the floor and settling for threes (3 for 12 in the half, 25%). UCLA started the half on a 12-2 run, propelled by good offensive execution, going up 50-37 and, again, you thought UCLA was on the verge of blowing up the margin to 20+. It was executing well against both USC’s man and zone.
But trying to manage Ball’s two fouls, UCLA went to quite a bit of zone, and USC chipped away at UCLA’s lead. USC’s point guard Jordan McLaughlin dribbled around and through both UCLA’s zone and man, and led USC’s push, scoring 11 of his 18 points in the second half. At the same time, USC’s defense (mostly man) tightened up. UCLA shot 5 for 28 (18%) the rest of the way, and looked tentative and afraid to lose. T.J. Leaf loosened up the injured ankle and dropped 10 of his 14 in the second half. And, again, give Hamilton credit: while the other Bruins got tentative, he kept shooting, finishing with a game-high 22 points.
Perhaps, even, we’re not giving Hamilton enough credit here. His offense was definitely a catalyst to the win. Having been in and out of so many slumps and mini-slumps, Hamilton is extremely comfortable trying to push himself out of a cold-shooting sequence, and he stepped up to take shots when the rest of the Bruins didn’t look like they wanted to.
The performance that probably weighed down UCLA’s effort the most was that of Aaron Holiday. He started off in his usual fashion, of forcing the issue and committing some mistakes, but in this game he never pulled out of that.
The element of UCLA’s performance that was probably the most worrisome was, in fact, its zone. It looked slow and lethargic, especially without Ball at the top of it. It’s especially vulnerable when UCLA doesn’t employ the three-quarter pressure to get into it but rather picks it up in the halfcourt. When it does that, after an opposing team had attempted to push the ball, the Bruins are really poor at getting into the zone quickly and effectively. In the halfcourt, there’s also the natural soft spot in the corner, and when UCLA isn’t active in closing out on a shooter -- or even trapping him, like it has done consistently – it makes for a wide-open look, and USC definitely found that in this game. UCLA’s zone has been one of the main catalysts to the Bruins late-season surge and it will absolutely need it to be effective for a deep run in March, so hopefully this was just an aberration.
I’m admittedly a little off-kilter myself because, along with some worries from this game, and the fact it was entirely too close ultimately in the end, the prospect of having to listen to Walton call UCLA’s next two games in the Pac-12 Tournament is excruciating.