Bruins Play a Great 31 Minutes...

...but the last nine minutes aren't, and UCLA averts a disaster by holding on against Ivy Leaguer Columbia at Pauley...

15th ranked UCLA had to endure the jeers of "overrated" from the Columbia faithful at Pauley Pavilion Thursday night, but apparently even people with an Ivy League education can't count: UCLA 64, Columbia 55. Scoreboard, baby.

As I predicted in my game preview (maybe I should have gone to an Ivy League school), UCLA pressed Columbia fullcourt for the entire game, trying to create turnovers and, more importantly, to cut down the amount of time Columbia had to run its backdoor offense. The Bruins played extremely well for about 31 minutes. But the remaining 9 minutes were a disaster. The Bruins led 31-21 at the half and then ran off the first 9 points in the second half to take a 40-21 lead. The Bruins kept up their quality play until the 11:40 mark of the second half, when they grabbed their biggest lead of the game, 50-28.

At that point, Columbia took over the game as the Bruins suddenly started showboating on offense and slacking off on defense. The Lions went on a 13-2 binge to cut the Bruins' lead to 52-41. Jason Kapono and Treg Duerksen traded 3s, and then the Lions went on another run, 10-4, to come to within 59-55 at the 1:44 mark. However, that was it for the Lions, as the Bruins went back to taking care of the ball and playing tough defense. UCLA made 5 FTs in the final 1:44, Columbia was 0-4 from the field, and UCLA wound up with the 9-point win.

Columbia employs very unusual and highly-effective offensive and defensive systems, just like Pete Carril's teams did at Princeton, and it's hard to imagine that any team could blow this Lions' squad out of the water. Quite frankly, I was shocked when UCLA was up by 22 points. Although many of the Bruin faithful were upset that UCLA blew its big lead, in truth this game included perhaps the best sustained play by the Bruins all season long apart from the Alabama game. There was no slow start in this game. UCLA came out 7-0 and stayed ahead for the whole game. Their fullcourt press bothered Columbia enough to give UCLA some easy buckets off turnovers and at least a chance to disrupt the Lions' offensive. Although Columbia did get numerous backdoor opportunities, they shot only 39.6% from the field and 27.6% from 3. Duerksen was an awesome 7-10 from 3 as he scored a game-high 21points, but the rest of the Lions only hit 1-19 from 3.

In the halfcourt, UCLA came out and played strictly man to man for the whole game and I think that this, along with the extended use of the press, was a good move, since a matchup zone would hardly have had a chance against this type of offense, especially considering how poorly all of UCLA's post players, except for Matt Barnes, rotate on defense. Yes, the Bruins sometimes didn't switch when they were supposed to, sometimes they switched at the wrong time, but overall (for 31 minutes, at least), the Bruins were able to keep a hand in the face of most of Columbia's 3-point shooters and keep them off-balance. As I noted in the preview, Columbia relies on the 3-point shot as the most important element of its offense. Here, 29 of the Lions' 53 field goal attempts were 3s (54.7%). Since the Lions normally hit 34.3% of their 3s, UCLA's defense overall has to get a good grade, even if they conceded the backdoor plays. In this type of game, it was better to give up a backdoor layup than to give up an open look from 3.

On offense, the Bruins got more layups than usual with the press causing some turnovers (Columbia made 15 turnovers overall). Apart from those two stretches between the 10:30 mark and the 1:55 mark, UCLA showed great ball movement and patience on offense, often getting 5-7 touches before a shot went up. Columbia uses an odd type of zone with a lot of man principles, and it confuses most teams and keeps them from scoring in the paint. The Bruins scored in the paint a lot Thursday night, even with Dan Gadzuric playing very ineffectively. UCLA got a number of lobs and short Js, with some slick passing from Jason Kapono, Matt Barnes, Rico Hines, Ryan Walcott and (gasp!) even TJ Cummings, who got 2 assists (the coaches told me after the game that they've barred TJ from getting the ball at the elbow and have worked extra hard with him in practices to get him to either shoot as soon as he touches the ball or else whip it back out to reset the offense).

TJ rewarded the coaches with 18 points on 9-11 shooting from the field, to go with 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block (first of the season), 1 steal and 0 turnovers in 28 minutes. 2 of TJ's rebounds were offensive rebounds, and he did some damage inside in this game and hopefully he will continue to improve in that area for the Bruins in the future, as UCLA desperately needs for TJ to start playing more like a post player. Jason Kapono did his usual "I refuse to shoot" number in the first half (2 points), then did his usual "You can't touch this" number in the second half by scoring 14 points, to finish with 16 points, including 4-4 from the FT line in the final minute to finish off the Lions. Jason also grabbed a season-high 11 rebounds, dished out 4 assists and picked up a steal. On the negative side, he made 4 turnovers, although UCLA as a team made only 13 turnovers for the game (as I noted, they've averaged exactly 13 turnovers per game through their now 6-game winning streak since the Pepperdine loss; if they maintain that mark, they would lead the Pac-10 in making the fewest number of turnovers). Oh, yeah: With his first 3 of the game, Jason surpassed Tracy Murray on the all-time list for most 3-pointers made by a UCLA player in his career.

The Lions have finished in the top 10 in the nation in FG% defense every year since Armond Hill became the head coach, but the Bruins were able to sink 49.1% of their FGs. They also made 8-10 FTs in this game, a crucial mark. Billy Knight scored all 14 of his points in the first half, made 2-5 from 3 and 2-2 from the FT line, but his 3 steals were negated by 4 turnovers. Billy and Jason both were careless and played like the game was already over when Columbia made its big comeback. Matt Barnes put on a clinic defensively, in both the fullcourt press and the halfcourt defense. If UCLA could get Dan, TJ and Andre to play defense at even half the level of Matt, they would improve by about 50%. Matt finished with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and only 1 turnover in 33 minutes. He took one bad shot, a rushed 3 attempt only 8 seconds into the shot clock, but otherwise confined himself to excellent shot selection (4-6 from the field besides that 3 attempt) and made some quite excellent passes during the time the UCLA offense was really clicking.

Rico Hines tried to hit some jumpers, since Columbia wasn't guarding him, but he didn't get close, as he bricked 3 Js and got a short shot swatted away by Chris Wiedemann. So, Rico was 0-4 from the field and once again failed to score in 26 minutes. However, he grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 4 assists and played very good defense throughout. Andre Patterson joined TJ Cummings as the first subs off the bench for UCLA, and he played 16 minutes. Although he got back-doored a lot, he also swatted away 5 shots and 3 of those came off of help defense. He also nabbed 3 rebounds, all defensive, and scored on a nice little slither move inside. Ryan Walcott played just 5 minutes, all in the second half, but he made the most of it as he raced through the Columbia team like it was nailed to the floor for a layup in the halfcourt offense, and also made a brilliant pass to Matt Barnes after a slick dribble penetration into the lane. So, he had 2 points, 1 rebound and 1 assist in his 5 minutes. I think maybe the coaches should play this guy more and Rico less. Ryan is so much quicker than anyone else on the team, it's a joke. And he's a pure point. Dijon Thompson had an off night with 0 points, 1 rebound, 0 assists and 0-3 shooting in 14 minutes. Whatever. He's a freshman.

Apart from the red-hot Duerksen, 6-10 JR C Chris Wiedemann was the standout for the Lions. He got 9 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks, and he was too much for Dan Gadzuric to handle inside (Dan finished with 3 points, 2 rebounds and 4 fouls in just 13 minutes of action; he wasn't going to score much anyway against Columbia's super-zone). Matt Barnes did the best job guarding Wiedemann. Craig Austin, the Ivy League POY last season, had a quiet night with 9 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists. He was 1-7 from 3 and 3-10 from the field. He usually had Rico on him and when he got an open shot, it was from NBA range, not college range. Mike McBrien was solid with 6 points, 2 rebounds and 3 assists. Joe Case, the Lions' starting "PF", got Matt Barnes when Matt wasn't guarding Wiedemann, and the result was Case going 3-10 from the field and 0-6 from 3 en route to 6 points and a single rebound.

Tito Hill, a 6-4 FR PG/SG, who doesn't play much, played a lot during Columbia's big comeback. He's quick and athletic and really helped break the Bruins' press much more effectively than anyone else on the Lions' team. His stats (2 points in 7 minutes) don't reflect his value: The 7 minutes he played were Columbia's best 7 minutes of the entire game. Derrick Mayo, Victor Munoz and Maurice Murphy played a combined 35 minutes at the point and finished with a combined 2 points, 1 assist and 3 turnovers.

Most Bruin fans will probably look at this game and complain that UCLA 1) should have beaten Columbia by 20 points and/or 2) Columbia's comeback in 9 of the final 10 minutes of the game ruined the Bruins' performance and made this game a disappointment. I disagree. Columbia plays a lot like Princeton and most observers expect them to challenge for the Ivy League title this year. The Lions are an extremely well-coached, disciplined team with good talent and size. They employ extremely unusual and annoying offensive and defensive schemes. With these kinds of teams, even the biggest powerhouses in the nation can be made to look silly. The Bruins looked silly for 9 minutes, but they looked terrific for the other 31. In contrast, UCLA was probably outplayed by Irvine, Washington and Washington State for about 30 minutes in each of their games. Apart from the silly moments, Jason, Matt, Billy, TJ, Andre and Ryan looked pretty good, and even if he's a terrible shooter, Rico came up big in every other category. Dan did a disappearing act again, but Columbia does play a great zone that focuses on keeping the ball out of the paint, and Wiedemann is considered the best big man in the Ivy League. So, UCLA was able to win without a big performance from Dan.

I think this was UCLA's best game of the season after the Alabama game. The coaches made the right strategic moves in putting the fullcourt press and man d back into place for this type of game and opponent. TJ played one of the best all-around games of his career and Andre Patterson got solid PT once again and proved he belongs on the floor. Billy and Jason had some bad moments taking care of the ball over a 9-minute span, but otherwise displayed poise and senior leadership as they hit 4-8 from 3 and 6-6 from the FT line. Matt turned in the best individual defensive performance of the season. It's a shame Rico can't hit the broad side of a barn, but he feeds the post better than any player on the team and you can't sneeze at his 6 rebounds (UCLA outrebounded Columbia 33-27 even without Gadzuric) and his good defense on Austin for most of the game and Duerksen for the last 2 minutes (0-2 from the field, including an air ball, unable to get to the ball on two other possessions).

UCLA improves its record to 8-2 overall and now prepares to take on 20th ranked Georgetown on Saturday afternoon. The whole Georgetown team shoots the J like Rico, but they play tough fullcourt pressure d and they have two sweepers under the glass in Michael Sweetney and Wesley Wilson. I think UCLA will go back into the matchup zone for this one, and they will need a huge performance from Dan. With Matt 100%, they seem to have rediscovered the press, and it will be interesting to see if Lavin employs the press against the Hoyas. Georgetown also likes to play a man d, so UCLA's 1-4 will be rolled out of mothballs. It should be an entertaining game, and UCLA needs to win it to score some RPI brownie points and solidify their claim to a top 25 ranking. We'll preview the game either tomorrow or Saturday morning.

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