“What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?”
That paradox was a theme in UCLA’s big win in the second round of the NCAA Tournament over Cincinnati, 79-67.
What would prevail, the irresistible force of UCLA’s once-in-a-decade type of offense or the immovable object of Cincinnati’s top-ten defense?
If you go by the first half, you’d have to give it to the immovable object. The Bearcats led at halftime, 33-30, and those 30 points represented the lowest-scoring first half for the Bruins this season. UCLA shot 37% from the field and 28.6% from three, and T.J. Leaf, UCLA’s leading scorer, hadn't scored.
At that point, there was a legitimate question of whether arguably the best offense in college basketball in close to 20 years could be dispatched by a good but not one-for-the-books defense. If it ended up being true, it would absolutely support the theory that ultimately it’s defense that prevails.
But that irresistible force – by the name of Lonzo Ball – came whirling onto shore and pretty much blew away Cincinnati’s fortifications. Hurricane Ball had one of the best halves by a player in this Tournament so far, with 11 points, 9 assists and 5 rebounds in those 20 minutes, to finish with another one of his near-triple-doubles of 18, 9 and 7, against just one turnover.
After scoring just 30 points in the first half, UCLA racked up 49 in the second half, shooting a blazing 63% from the field and 50% (7 for 14) from three.
So, what happened?
Perhaps the biggest factor was UCLA being able to get points in transition in the second half. Cincinnati had completely shut off that spigot in the first half, and relegated the Bruins to its halfcourt offense. UCLA has proven it can still win this way, but it’s by far a riskier proposition. Other than the obvious – getting easy points with lay-ups and dunks – what a transition game also does is loosen up an opponent’s halfcourt defense. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said in the classic Airplane, “dragging (their) ass up and down the court” got them fatigued, both mentally and physically, which makes them vulnerable in their halfcourt defense. It’s similar to a no-huddle, up-tempo offense in football – you keep doing it, eventually the defense is going to get tired and be susceptible in the latter half of the game. That element, merely tiring out Cincinnati, appeared to be a major factor in the tale of two halves. The energy of the Bearcats when they came out from halftime was noticeably different than it had been in the first half, not only on defense, but in getting back in transition and even on their own offensive end. UCLA went on a 10-3 run to start the second half, with seven of those points scored in transition, and in those first three minutes, the Bearcats showed more vulnerability in getting back in transition than they had in the entire first half.
Perhaps one of the most under-rated plays of the game came in that sequence, when 7-foot Thomas Welsh hustled out on a break and finished with a put-back dunk to give UCLA the lead at 37-36. It kind of sent a message: Heck, if our seven-footer can get out and run like that, get ready for the rest of us.
Led by Ball, and with Cincinnati now more vulnerable, UCLA’s transition scoring opened up, and the game opened up. UCLA’s halfcourt offense returned to its normal self, not the disjointed, out-of-sync version we saw in the first half. And the win was an inevitability.
While Cincinnati losing energy led to them eventually succumbing, it might not have ever happened if the UCLA onslaught weren’t led by Ball. He had one of his best halves of the season – and one of his most complete halves, combining timely scoring along with his passing and playmaking, rebounding and defense. The Bruins had cracked open Cincinnati, but were still prying them open at about the 13-minute mark of the second half when Ball hit two consecutive threes to give UCLA its biggest lead of the game, 52-47. Those two shots were devastating, because they are just really thrown-in points that you can’t really defend or account for. We are big sticklers for the good-shot/bad-shot approach to offensive basketball – that offense is so much about decreasing your percentage of bad shots and increasing the amount of good ones. That simple formula right there is what makes for a good, efficient offense. But Ball is so abnormally good that he can take what you might think are “bad shots” and make them. He sometimes in a game launches threes from 27+ feet, just out of nowhere, and bury them. Those are back-breakers for a defense. They can be defending well, not allowing any “good shots,” but a moon shot from 28 feet by a guy 6-6 almost can’t be defended and, when it goes in, the fact that there’s almost nothing you can do to defend it has to be so deflating. Perhaps Ball’s unorthodox shooting motion also contributes. The fact that it defies convention, and every rule of proper shooting mechanics, and just shouldn’t provide the type of results that Ball gets out of it, has to also poke at a defender’s mind. It’s almost like rubbing it in – that the defender has probably spent thousands of hours trying to hone his shooting motion and this punk, who shoots it from the opposite side of his head like a 10-year-old in a playground, is making you look like a helpless fool.
We also have to say one thing that we haven’t pointed out throughout the season but it absolutely needs to be mentioned: Ball’s demeanor on the court, too, is something that enhances his game. He very rarely woofs or taunts (perhaps at the beginning of the season he did a little). He doesn’t talk trash. We think it has to make him even more of a psychological annoyance for an opponent, that this much-hyped freshman is almost so smug and self-assured that he doesn’t need to woof or talk trash. It’s almost like it supports the aura of Ball as being super-human, and makes him even more formidable.
Perhaps we’re just undeservedly piling on what is becoming somewhat of a Ball legend, reading into things that possibly aren’t there. But we absolutely think a great deal of this otherworldly magic was at work against Cincinnati Sunday and it was the biggest force in getting UCLA the win.
Ball’s wingman – Robin to his Batman – was absolutely Aaron Holiday in this game. Holiday has now put together two disciplined, under-control little masterpieces himself in the Tournament. He had just five points Sunday, but also 5 big assists and no turnovers, and some great defense, in just 25 minutes. He was critical in UCLA busting open the game. He looked like Ball Jr. a bit in the second half, with some very pretty outlets on the break and nice assists. About halfway through the half, Holiday was hitting his stride, with a nice outlet pass to Bryce Alford for a lay-up, and then a few minutes later Holiday threw a another pretty outlet to Ball, who then scooped-passed to a streaking Gyorgy Goloman for a dunk, and UCLA was up 67-55. Holiday then followed that up with a blocked shot on the other end.
It was fortuitous that Ike Anigbogu was able to play after spraining his ankle in the first round against Kent State because he had a big impact. With Cincinnati’s having two bigs who are particularly physical, it was key that Anigbogu provide some tough, physical and athletic minutes. He played just 7 minutes, in fact, but those minutes seemed to counter-punch those Bearcat bigs. They were getting “hit” by the skill of Welsh and Leaf, and then there’s this 6-10, 250-pounder who comes in fresh off the bench and pushes them around. He was able to get 6 points in those mere 7 minutes, and one block he wasn’t credited, and again, provide a physicality that contributed to wearing down Cincinnati.
The dynamic of this team is interesting. Don’t let anyone try to convince you that the phenomenon that is the 2016-2017 Bruins isn’t inspired by Ball, because it clearly is. Ball is the main force that makes this all happen, and when the other players realize it and play their supporting roles, the pieces fall into place. When Isaac Hamilton or Bryce Alford try to force things, it sends the Bruin universe a bit off its axis. That was happening a bit in the first half. With UCLA trying to find a weakness in Cincinnati’s tough defense, one that bumped cutters and screens and disrupted UCLA’s offense, Hamilton and Alford, as they’ve been prone to do, think they can jump-start UCLA’s offense by hitting an unlikely, low-percentage shot. We had seen in previous years that it doesn’t work for the most part and that the low-percentage jump-start shot can only be done by Ball, actually. Alford looked like his out-of-sync, off-balance version of himself for a big portion of this game. Cincinnati was doing quite a bit of defensive work to not give Alford an open look, and it was effective in the first half. Not only did Alford have just 3 points, but he took just five shots. It wasn’t coincidental, then, that Alford became his squared-up, balanced self after Lonzo started to crack open Cincinnati. After Ball hit those two consecutive threes, Alford followed it up with a picture-perfect three. Hamilton at times forced shots in this game, and didn’t find a rhythm, really, until UCLA’s offense found its Ball-inspired flow. Alford finished with 16 and Hamilton 10.
You have to give a great deal of credit to Welsh, for this game and the season. While much of this team flows the way Ball is flowing, perhaps the most reliable element of UCLA’s offense that is independent of the Ball Flow is Welsh’s mid-range game. It’s absolutely the go-to shot in UCLA’s halfcourt offense. Welsh finished with 11 points, and his 7 first-half points were what kept UCLA close when the rest of its offense hadn’t found its groove, or its scoring in transition yet. We already mentioned Welsh’s put-back dunk on the break, which was one of those turning-point moments.
With UCLA’s offense flowing in the second half, Leaf felt it, scoring 11 second-half points.
A key to the game was UCLA committing just three turnovers on the night. When you have the ballhandlers of Ball and Holiday pretty much playing flawlessly, UCLA’s offense absolutely becomes near-impossible to keep down.
So, it’s one more example of a stout defense succumbing to the irresistible force that is Ball and UCLA’s offense. Just four more immovable objects to overcome.