14th ranked UCLA won its 9th straight game behind the brilliant shooting of Billy Knight, but it was another nailbiter against an undermanned opponent, in this case the Washington State Cougars. The Bruins are now 11-2 overall, 4-0 in the Pac-10. WSU falls to 4-8, 0-4.
The final score was 81-69 (I predicted 78-66 in my preview; one of these days I'm going to nail the score), but that doesn't reflect how close the game was. The Bruins burst out to an 18-10 lead with a balanced, patient, offense. Lavin started inserting the freshmen, and the Bruins began to hurry some shots. More importantly, WSU got a lot of easy looks from 3 and hit them (the Cougs were 5-12 from 3 in the first half). In addition, WSU ruled the offensive glass, scoring 6 times off of 8 offensive rebounds.
Billy Knight and Matt Barnes kept the game tight, with Billy scoring from all over and Matt getting some easy looks inside, especially when Ced Bozeman was passing over the top of the WSU defense. However, with Marcus Moore and Mike Bush able to penetrate the loose Bruin zone off the dribble, the Cougars continued to get high percentage shots and took the lead at 35-34. Matt made a terrific play to get Jason Kapono an open look from way downtown, and UCLA took the lead back at 37-35. Bush countered with his own NBA-range 3, but Ced Bozeman broke Marcus Moore's ankles and hit the soft floating J in the lane with 1 second to go, leaving the Bruins clinging to a narrow halftime lead of 39-38.
In the second half, Lavin tried to both close down WSU's outside shooting and the ability of quick athletes Moore and Bush to drive through seams in the zone by using Matt as a "floater". Matt's job was to roam the paint, plugging gaps in the zone and jumping out at anyone who got through a J Locklier or Mike Bush or Shaminder Gill pick up top for an open 3. This strategy worked, but unfortunately it left Matt's man open for more offensive rebound baskets, as it basically meant that Dan or TJ were trying to block out 2 guys at once. Dan did a pretty solid job, actually, all by himself, but Milton Riley, the former Compton High player, either got a tip-in or drew a foul and sank both FTs on 4 offensive rebounds in the second half. This, plus some more unusual hot shooting from long range by Moore, Bush and Jerry McNair, kept the game close for 12 more minutes.
On the offensive end, Matt and Jason started rushing a lot of their outside shots, while Dan and TJ did the same inside. But Billy Knight kept raining in 3s and short Js off the dribble when his defender rushed in too fast to close out the 3. When Billy hit the 18-point mark, I knew it was time for me to remove my Michael Jackson jacket. But apart from Billy, the Bruins couldn't seem to find any rhythm on their offense, but basically they would go ahead by 4-6 points whenever Rico Hines was in the game and then WSU would catch up whenever Rico left the game.
Lavin also shortened his bench in the second half, keeping Andre Patterson on the pine for the final 20 minutes, and limiting Dijon Thompson's time as well. With TJ Cummings playing very ineffectively at both ends, Lavin gave Dan a lot of minutes even when Dan was in foul trouble. Dan responded with 3 excellent blocks, all coming off rotation from the weakside of the ball on a penetration move. Dan also started putting the ball in the basket with some tough dirty work on the offensive glass. UCLA and WSU were tied at 59-59after the under 8 minute timeout.
At that point, Lavin subbed in Billy and Dan again and the Bruins had their starting lineup back on the floor, 2 5th year SRs, two more SRs and a JR. The Bruins suddenly became very patient on offense again, and by now a tired WSU team began settling for the 3 and stopped trying to penetrate the zone. WSU began really bricking its shots (0-6 from 3 after this point in the game), UCLA controlled the glass and Billy Knight continued his inexorable scoring pace, while Jason Kapono also finally joined in the fun, usually thanks to a pass from Matt or an offensive board by Jason (4 in the second half). The Bruins outscored WSU 22-10 in the final 7:32, to give them the ultimate 12-point victory. Basically, the game came down to poise and conditioning, and the Bruins' experience obviously paid off at the end.
Billy Knight had a career day, scoring 32 points on 9-13 shooting from the field, 6-9 from 3 and 8-8 from the FT line. He also collected 2 steals, and made only 1 turnover in 32 minutes. By the terms of the promise I made to Billy 5 years ago, when he first entered UCLA, I offered him my Michael Jackson jacket, which the then-18 year old badly desired (I had told Billy I would give him the jacket if he ever scored 25 points in a game during his college career). Billy graciously declined to receive the jacket, stating: "Thanks, but my values have changed. I no longer covet something as trivial or material as a mere jacket." UCLA fans can now proudly trade jousts with Stanford fans: How many basketball players use "covet," "trivial" and "mere" in the same sentence?
Jason Kapono's shooting woes continued, as he was only 5-13 from the field, 2-6 from 3 and 4-6 from the FT line, but Jason did yeoman work on the glass (8 rebounds, including those 4 offensive rebounds, all of which led to Bruin scores) and handed out 3 nice assists and made only 1 turnover in 37 minutes. 16 points might be subpar for Jason, but it's nice to have a guy who still scores 16 points on a bad day.
Matt Barnes again dished out the dimes with cool assurance, following up his 8-assist game against Washington with a 7-assist day against WSU. He also had 11 points, 6 rebounds and only 1 turnover in 33 minutes. If Matt could be faulted today, all 3 of his 3s were forced (and missed). He was hitting 45% of his 3s going into this game, but he has to remember that he needs to let the game come to him, rather than trying to make a shot out of joint with the flow of the game.
Dan Gadzuric threw up some weird shots again, but he was obviously well-motivated and did a great job on the boards at both ends, finishing with 13 rebounds to go with 9 points and his 3 blocks. He played with a lot more energy than he showed on Friday night. TJ Cummings, as I noted, was very ineffective after a series of terrific games, and he had only 4 points and 1 rebound on 2-6 shooting in 18 minutes.
Rico Hines took 3 charges (all seemingly at crucial moments in the game, with the lead in jeopardy), leapt over a table trying to save a loose ball, handed out 4 assists, grabbed 3 rebounds and scored a bucket in 27 minutes. His exhortations and instructions to his teammates down the final stretch could be heard way up in the middle section of the gym. A lot of fans keep asking why Rico plays so much. Answer: He plays because he helps the Bruins win. He was credited with a turnover at the 9:13 mark of the second half, snapping his turnover-less streak at 88 minutes, which might be some kind of record for a UCLA player. The Bruins only made 9 turnovers for the whole game, against a team that is forcing 18 turnovers per game this season.
Ced Bozeman got 13 minutes, somehow managing to sneak past Lavin's 10-minute limit. I think it was his defense up top and pretty passing. The Bruins are probably going to get a lot better at both ends when Ced is at 100%. While he made 4 turnovers (according to the official stat keepers, at least), he handed out 3 assists, scored a bucket and swiped a ball from a passing lane which led to a Bruin fastbreak at the other end (a rare sight these days). Andre Patterson got 3 points in 6 minutes of the first half. Dijon Thompson added 2 points in 9 minutes.
Mike Bush led WSU, with 18 points (3-7 from 3), 6 rebounds and 3 assists. This guy might have a choice of playing professionally in two sports, basketball and football. I think the last guy who was in that position was maybe Charlie Ward. Marcus Moore, formerly of Redondo Union and Dominguez High, got 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, but made 4 turnovers and only hit 3-9 from the field. J Locklier, who actually committed two intentional fouls (the brute!), got 14 points and 5 rebounds in a very solid performance (he's a very solid player). I was highly amused when Locklier committed his first intentional foul, on Billy as Mr. Knight was on a breakaway, and a WSU fan above me yelled out, "Locklier, you jerk!" WSU has nice fans. Jerry McNair, who is originally from Torrance, scored 13 points, though he wound up 3-11 from 3. Milton Riley of Compton got 10 points (8-8 from the FT line) and 7 rebounds. Shami Gill got 4 points and 4 rebounds, and Crenshaw's EJ Harris added an assist in 2 minutes of action.
I'm not certain if there are any lessons to be gleaned from this game. When UCLA runs their offense well, they score a lot of points, draw a lot of fouls and get a lot of high percentage shots. Their defense continues to be very mediocre, as well as passive. And a zone always results in a lot of offensive rebounds for the opponent. With such a mediocre, passive defense, the Bruins are in no position to blow anyone out, even the worst teams in the Pac-10. With such an efficient and difficult to defend offense, they can probably beat even the best Pac-10 teams on a given night, since their offense tends to dictate the tempo of games when the Bruins are firing on all cylinders. Teams like Arizona, Stanford, Oregon and USC all like to score early in the shot clock, and they hate to defend for more than 20 seconds. If the Bruins take them 30 seconds into the clock on each possession, it will probably drive all those teams nuts. Oregon, in particular.
Ced Bozeman's play continues to be encouraging. Unlike Rico, when a defender sags off Ced, the frosh either spots a backdoor cutter and hits him with a precision pass (it's hard to prevent a 6-7 guy from making that pass over the top of the defense) or he takes the ball right at his defender, closing the gap and simultaneously setting a moving pick (actually 2, with both his man and his defender), in case one of his teammates wants to curl around them (Matt did this once, and missed from 3; Billy did this once and nailed the J). Ced is noticeably quicker (and taller and more long-limbed) than either Billy or Rico up top on d, and WSU found it much harder to penetrate UCLA's zone when Ced was in the game. The Bruins' situational press is also more effective when Ced is part of the squad.
Lavin continues to face the problem of balancing PT between the vets, on the one hand, and TJ, Ced, Dijon and Andre, on the other. It might be a good idea if he didn't play all 3 FR at the same time, as he has done this past weekend. Maybe he should only have 1 or at most 2 FR on the floor at any one time. This might cut back on the gross PT of the FR, but it might also make their PT more efficient and speed them up the learning curve by spending more of their minutes on the floor with the vets. In any event, I expect that Ced is going to be playing at least 25 mpg by the time UCLA faces Cal and Stanford at Pauley; maybe even sooner.
The Bruins need to execute their zone with more energy, and find some way of preventing offensive rebounds. It's not as simple as "boxing out"; you can't box out a moving target, and unfortunately a zone creates gaps between the defenders and offensive players in the paint, especially when someone cuts or rolls to the basket, and it's not realistic to assume that a player can "box out" someone who has a head start on him and is coming from behind him, out of his field of vision. The only solution would be to pack the zone in even tighter, a grave risk in these days when every team has 3-point shooters. Perhaps when Ced is back, the Bruins will either go back to a man, or else they'll reconfigure the 2-1-2 matchup zone, possibly going to a 2-3 matchup, since Matt can cover so much space on his side of the floor. It will be interesting to see if the UCLA coaching staff makes any adjustments in the defense from this point on. I'm not sure the current defense will work against teams at the level of Arizona, Stanford, Oregon and USC if those teams are hot from the outside. Although this zone worked against Alabama and Georgetown, neither of those teams were strong from behind the arc.
The game wasn't pretty, but it puts UCLA in a position to remain on top of the Pac-10 if they can beat USC at the Forum next Thursday.