The Bruins did the two things that Head Coach Ben Howland has emphasized all season: rebounding and playing defense. Except for a few lapses, they had energy and focus on defense, limiting Cal to 39% from the field. They blocked out on the boards throughout the game, and won the board battle, 31-29, against a strong rebounding team in Cal. UCLA also showed some newfound knack for steals, creating 11 Cal turnovers in the first half.
UCLA also continued a recent trend – executing its offense well. Even when UCLA started the season 9-3, it did so with defense and rebounding while struggling offensively. While UCLA hasn't necessarily been posting wins recently, it has continued to improve offensively. In the last month it's gotten quite a bit better at being more disciplined on offense, moving the ball crisply, going inside-outside, and getting open looks. UCLA shot 50% for the game against Cal, commonly getting good looks from within 12 feet after executing it offense well, then also, through great ball movement, getting open looks from the outside. UCLA shot 46% from three.
In fact, if there was anything you could be critical about in this game it would be UCLA's inability to finish inside once it executed its offense effectively. In this game, as in recent games, UCLA will execute its offense well, enabling them to get an open lay-up, but then will fail to convert. It's a testament to Howland's insistence on his players getting bigger and stronger and ultimately more effective in finishing.
The Bruins also showed good resiliency. They played stifling defense in the first half, holding Cal to 25% shooting and limiting them to just 14 points in building a 30-14 halftime lead. Then Cal came out on fire in the first few minutes of the second half. More specifically, Cal's Amit Tamir did, as he scored the first nine points of the second half for Cal. Getting him the ball was a good tactical move, with UCLA doubling and sometimes tripling their other low-post scorer, Leon Powe, every time he touched the ball. When Cal had trimmed the lead to 11, Howland called a good timeout and made some obvious adjustments. Tamir then didn't score again, and UCLA went on a couple of min-runs to stretch the lead to 25 points with 5 minutes left in the game.
T.J. Cummings played with tenacity on the boards and showed his great shooting touch. He finished with a double-double, 19 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs. He also contributed on defense to keeping Powe to 10 points and six rebounds. It appeared that Cumming was inspired by Powe having beaten him consistently in their first meeting in Berkeley. Cummings was 8 of 9 from the field, and 1 of 1 from three, and made all three of his free throws.
Dijon Thompson had 14 points and shot the ball well.
Michael Fey showed improvement, playing hard defensively. A big turn of momentum was a block Fey made on a dunk by Cal's Dominic McGuire in the first half. Fey had 5 points and 3 rebounds in 16 minutes. In fact, UCLA got good help from its bench, a total of 53 minutes. Jon Crispin, in the second half, hit a couple of long-distance threes to break Cal's back.
Howland said in a recent press conference that you can only really judge the performance of a team – or a coach – by how many games it wins. But we beg to differ with the coach on this. When this team was 9-3 and 5-0 in conference it didn't play nearly as well on both ends of the floor as it did as a team that was 10-11 and 6-7 against Cal Thursday night. Looking purely at the record you would say that UCLA hasn't improved but has gone downhill since early in the season, but anyone who watched the Cal game would know differently. The team has renewed its dedication to rebounding and defense, is executing far better on offense, and has found some heart and competitiveness.
It sets the stage for a very interesting game on Saturday, with UCLA coming off perhaps its best game of the season in beating Cal decisively…