So, let's start with the biggest, sweeping statement I can make: This game provided more hope and optimism than any UCLA football or basketball game in many years.
And the team lost.
It's the first time in a long time that, on the field or court, you watched a UCLA team and could see the future. You could imagine what this program could be within a few years.
Imagine what I'd be writing if they had won?
Here are some of the other things that definitely need to be said. Don't forget, UCLA came close to beating the #15-ranked team in the country (where I think Kentucky should be ranked) without two starter-caliber players in Trevor Ariza and T.J. Cummings. In fact, probably lacking its best player in Ariza.
If anyone would have told you that UCLA would have not had Cummings and Ariza, and that Mike Fey would get his second foul within five minutes and Ryan Hollins would get three fouls by the end of the first half, wouldn't you have said that UCLA would get blown out by 25?
It was one of the best displays of defense UCLA has put on the court since John Wooden rolled up a program.
After the first lousy ten minutes, for the last 30 UCLA was the better team and completely out-played, out-executed, out-defended, and out-classed Kentucky.
How breath-taking is it to actually watch a coach who knows how to coach a game? Watching Ben Howland orchestrate the offense, make adjustments in matchups, shift defenses, manage fouls, use his bench, and utilize his timeouts is like an oasis to a man crossing the desert, and UCLA fans have been Bedouins for so many years.
Again, how huge of an impact does good coaching make? In just a about a month and a half, Howland has transformed the team and the individual players. He has made each individual player better, and he has made them play well together.
With Stanford beating #1-ranked Kansas in the second game of the Wooden Classic, it was really striking: When, any time in your life, would you ever think that among the four teams playing that day – UCLA, Kentucky, Stanford and Kansas – that the two teams that most closely resembled each other because of execution and defense were UCLA and Stanford? How weird does it feel to say that UCLA is a well-coached team? How weird will it feel in the coming years for UCLA to be known for its defense?
While UCLA fans everywhere were completely satisfied and enthused with the near loss, it was amazingly refreshing to hear how grumpy Howland was in his post-game comments about losing. There was no mention of moral victories. Nothing about laying the foundation for the program. He wasn't satisfied or enthused. He, of course, gave credit to a great effort by his players, but make no mistake: He was pissed they lost.
Yes, there were obvious flaws and lapses. UCLA was tight and out-of-sync in the first ten minutes of the game. They shot 24% in the first half. If the Bruins had converted just a few very easy, blown lay-ups, they win. Or just hit a couple of the front ends of free throws. The team they put on the floor Saturday lacks scorers, and they're soft at finishing around the basket.
But if you're a UCLA fan, that has suffered through the last several years of Bruin football and basketball, you had to almost be shedding tears watching this team fight, play hard, execute and play defense. It was especially gratifying to see how they evolved in the game, and played through jitters and lack of execution. There were so many moments that echoed of the poor play of the past, but then it changed. Through one stretch in the first half when Kentucky got some easy baskets in transition and stretched their lead to 17 points, the UCLA fans in the Pond were calling each other on their cell phones to commiserate. But then the team made some adjustments, got back in transition, and shut down Kentucky's offense. By the second half, the Wildcats were completely tentative offensively, taken out of any kind of rhythm by UCLA's defense. Kentucky shooting guard Gerald Fitch, who was averaging 24 points a game, scored just five points on 1-of-10 shooting. UCLA's guards Cedric Bozeman and Brian Morrison took away his open looks, denied him drives and shut him down. He wasn't even looking for his shot by the mid-second half he was so discouraged. Talking about fighting back and fighting through poor play, UCLA was out-rebounded in the first half 24-18, but then out-rebounded the Wildcats in the second-half 21-17 (I'm sure there was no emphasis about rebounding by Howland at halftime in the locker room, no talk of improving block outs). After Kentucky made their run and went up 23-6 about midway through the second half, UCLA outscored them 44-29 the rest of the way. When UCLA tended to break down and go one-on-one in desperation at times in the first half, it was replaced by a great effort to execute in the second half, which translated into much easier baskets.
Many watching this game might have considered it ugly since there weren't a great many highlight reel dunks and only 102 points scored total. But it was really a game of basketball beauty. Not only did UCLA play beautiful defense, so did Kentucky. Both teams' inability to score was more a result of great defense than poor offense. There weren't a great deal of open looks. Every shot was contested. Every post-up was well-defended. Kentucky didn't shoot 27% for the game; UCLA held Kentucky to 27% shooting for the game.
There were some pure, beautiful moments, too, for UCLA fans. Probably the one that stands out was halfway through the second half. UCLA got a huge boost when Brian Morrison blocked a Fitch attempt at a three, picked up the ball after Fitch slipped, scored on a lay-up and was then fouled and converted the free throw. It was an electrifying moment, where the UCLA fans rumbled the Pond for the first time. At that point, as a UCLA fan, having watched this team play itself back into the game with defense and offensive execution, and having watched Howland orchestrate the game masterfully, you thought that this maybe could be the turning point of the game. And it truly was, even though UCLA didn't have quite enough to win it.
But it might not have just merely been the turning point of the game. When you heard the UCLA fans actually out-cheering the huge contingent of Kentucky fans for the rest of the game, and you saw the team executing well down the stretch, and saw Howland on the sidelines, the thought might have occurred to you that this was the moment the sleeping giant that is the UCLA basketball program began to awaken.