Bruins Get Biggest Win in Years

It was the biggest win for UCLA -- in either basketball or football -- in years, when UCLA knocked off #12-ranked Washington Saturday at Pauley Pavilion, 95-86. This team might not win championships, but they have a champion's mentality...

It was easily the best win in many years for UCLA, in either basketball or football, when the Bruins beat #12-ranked Washington at Pauley Pavilion Saturday, 95-86.

You could make a case for it, since, in football, UCLA hasn't beaten such a highly-ranked opponent since the 2001 season.

In basketball, the last time was March of 2002 when UCLA beat #1-ranked Arizona in the Pac-10 tournament.

And it's even hard to count that win over Arizona in basketball, since everyone knew Steve Lavin was going to be fired, and it really didn't have any significance in terms of the program.

And this game is very significant in terms of the program.

So, it's not a stretch to say that this is the biggest win for UCLA in many years.

It brings UCLA to 9-3 and 3-1 on the season and now gives them a realistic chance of making the NCAA tournament. While the Pac-10 is near impossible to predict (Stanford beating Arizona yesterday, for instance), and barring any meltdown for this team, you'd have to say UCLA has a legitimate chance of making the NCAA tournament after getting such a big win under its belt. Not only does it get them another notch in the win column, it boosts their RPI considerably (to #15, in fact), which was already pretty high because UCLA's opponents across the country are doing very well.

If this team does make the NCAA tournament it would quite an accomplishment – starting three freshmen, without a power forward in the lineup and without a center that can get more than 4 rebounds per game.

Against Washington, UCLA overcame a 21-point deficit in the first half to then win by 9 points – completing a stunning 30-point turnaround.

In looking back on the game, you marvel as to how it was done. 30 points? When did that happen?

How it happened clearly was primarily with defense. Washington scored 52 points in the first half while shooting an eye-popping 67% from the field. In the second half, UCLA held them to 34 points and just 42%. They went from shooting 54% from three in the first half to 16% in the second.

While Washington did miss some open shots that contributed to those figures, you have to give the credit to UCLA's inspired defense. After getting sliced up in the first ten minutes of the game by Washington, where it had given up a mind-blowing 30 points (which, for you math majors, is a 120-point-game pace), UCLA then settled down and played defense. As the Bruins started to defend, Washington then got tentative and starting going one-on-one and not executing an offense. There were also some good adjustments made defensively. Brian Morrison became the primary defender of Washington's ultra-quick and slippery Nate Robinson. Morrison has the best quickness on the team, so early on, when UCLA couldn't contain Robinson, Morrison was called on and he responded. Morrison generally stopped Robinson's dribble penetration, which had been creating so many easy opportunities for Washington in those first ten minutes.

If, in fact, you had just watched the first ten minutes of the game and then, for whatever reason, were shipped to Siberia, you would have come away with a far different impression of the game, and UCLA.

Washington played some of the best defense UCLA had faced in many years in those first ten minutes. They applied fullcourt pressure, and extended their defense in the halfcourt. By the time UCLA's point guard, Jordan Farmar, was initiating the offense there commonly was only about 10 seconds left on the shot clock. And Washington's defense was so disruptive, UCLA couldn't even execute the offense once it was initiated. While, on the other end, UCLA's defense was listless, with the wrong matchups (until the adjustments), a lethargy in switching on screens, and little quickness to close out on shooters, especially Washington's post player, Mike Jensen, who drained three three-pointers. The score was 30-9 at the 9:26 mark of the first half, and it looked like UCLA would get blown out of their own hallowed building.

Alas, though, Washington couldn't keep up the defensive pressure. Once they built their 21-point lead, which they maintained to a score of 36-15 at the 7:24 mark, they never again attempted any kind of sustained fullcourt pressure or over-play in the halfcourt. While Washington has decent depth, after you get past their first seven players, there really is a drop-off in talent. Plus, Washington appeared winded by the end of the game, possibly with those first ten minutes of extreme defensive pressure taking it out of them.

Brian Morrison strips Will Conroy.
On the other hand, UCLA started playing defense. The Bruins closed out the last 7 ½ minutes of the first half with a 27-16 run, getting some consistent stops against Washington.

It also began to flow better offensively, with Washington now receding from its defensive pressure, and Farmar able to operate in the halfcourt. Also, with Washington's defense going slack, UCLA got some easy baskets in transition, one being a Josh Shipp dunk on a long pass by Arron Afflalo to bring the Bruins to within 11 at about the 3:40 mark of the first half. UCLA continued to play strong for the last few minutes of the half, which ended with them down by just 10, 52-42.

At this point, you began to wonder: Could UCLA actually pull this off? Would Washington come out in the second half with the same kind of defensive pressure, make another huge 21-point run and seal the deal?

Washington, as stated above, looked like they had expended all their energy in those first ten minutes and came out in the second half with no defensive intensity. UCLA outscored the Huskies by 19 in the second half, 53-34, by playing solid defense, and by a couple of seniors, Morrison and Dijon Thompson, shooting out of their minds.

Dijon Thompson shot eight of nine in the second half, and was in such a zone that anytime he went up, whether he was off-balance or had a defender in his face, you could see the ball was going in. He finished with 29 points and nine huge rebounds.

He was matched in shooting rhythm by fellow senior, Brian Morrison, who finished with 19 points, nailing 4 of five threes, some from deep and some at hugely critical times. Perhaps the biggest was the three-pointer from the corner, with a defender on him, at about the 4-minute mark, which put UCLA up, 85-83. Or there was the one at about the eight-minute mark that put UCLA up by one, 75-74. Or the one at about the 16-minute mark that was also huge. UCLA was mounting its comeback, but then Washington's Will Conroy hit a 24-footer to get the Huskies back up by double figures, 59-48. At that point, you hesitated to think if UCLA would be able to come all the way back, or merely hang around a 12-15 point deficit. You only wondered for about ten second because Morrison came back to the other side of the floor and answered Conroy's three with a quick one of his own to draw the score to 59-51. At that point, you felt that both Thompson and Morrison were so on that Washington was in trouble.

In the last 16 ½ minutes of the game, Morrison and Thompson scored 35 of UCLA's 44 points. UCLA shot 65.5% in the second half, mostly due to Thompson and Morrison. It was definitely the Morrison and Thompson Show. You could say they were playing at that "magical level" (especially since their former coach, Steve Lavin, was in attendance. He, by the way, left the game with about 3 minutes left).

UCLA had some other standout performers. Farmar finished with 13 points, and seven assists against just 2 turnovers, in 34 minutes of play. In his last two games, Farmar has had 13 assists against two turnovers, in a total of 80 minutes of play. He's also had six steals, and had a great one against the ultra-quick Robinson. We all speculated how long it would take Farmar to mature and make better decisions, after he started out the beginning of the season forcing plays and throwing some errant passes. Most thought it would probably take toward the end of the season, or maybe sometime next year when he was a sophomore. It very well might have only taken him 10 games.

Josh Shipp and Arron Afflalo, the other freshmen starters, had some key moments and sequences. Both hit big threes of their own, and played solid defense. You can see Afflalo's energy seep into the rest of the team, particularly Thompson. Both he and Shipp finished with 10 points.

The other freshman, post Lorenzo Mata, had perhaps his best all-around game in his young Bruin career. He was credited with just four rebounds, but he must have had much more. And there wasn't a bigger one than at 30 seconds left in the game, when he got a huge offensive rebound off a missed shot and then a put-back, to put UCLA up, 91-86. It was the play that iced the game for UCLA. In addition to his rebounding, he played some good post defense, challenging shooters when they came into the lane. He made a great block on Robinson that was also a huge turning point in the waning minutes of the game. It's phenomenal how far Mata's post defense has come in just 12 games; if you remember he was a matador in the first few games of the season defending the post.

UCLA continued to out-rebound its opponent, beating Washington on the boards, 34-33. Just as significant, UCLA committed only 11 turnovers, while Washington turned it over 17 times. It's UCLA's second game in a row with just 11 turnovers, with the Bruins being far more careful with the ball as the freshmen gain more experience. Turning the ball over less has been key in staging the big comebacks UCLA mounted against Washington State and Washington, being able to make every possession count.

While Washington is a good team, and a good program, in the second half you really had a snapshot of two different kinds of teams and programs. In Washington, you had a run-and-gun, go one-on-one, turn-the-ball-over, less-disciplined style. In UCLA, you saw a far more structured and under-control approach, one that definitely pays off in crunch time. You also saw a team, in Washington, that seemed to wither both physically and mentally, getting tentative and rattled by UCLA's comeback. On the other hand, in UCLA's team this year there is a never-say-die toughness. UCLA now has come back from a 38-point total deficit in two games. While Washington looked fatigued as the game went on, UCLA looked stronger.

You also have to give credit to the Pauley Pavilion crowd. The close to 12,000 fans were loud and energetic, and the team fed off that energy.

Now, if UCLA can just come out of the starting block with some of the energy it finds during the course of the game, it could be very impressive. So far this team has yet to put together a complete game, and has had to overcome some considerable bad starts.

But there is obviously a different mentality to this team than in recent years. You have to give a great deal of the credit to the freshmen. They've brought a true competitor's mindset to the team, one that doesn't get intimidated or discouraged and never stops competing. It has engendered that same competitiveness in the team's veterans, or possibly re-kindled it out of a long dormancy left over from many frustrating years. It's epitomized in the steely composure of Josh Shipp hitting a clutch three-pointer during a critical, high-pressure sequence. Or Jordan Farmar coming off a screen and hitting a banker in the lane to beat Pepperdine.

It was, also, epitomized in the Washington game's last play. With the outcome all but decided, UCLA's Dijon Thompson was at the line shooting a free throw. He missed it, and then hustled by three Huskies to pick up the rebound at the baseline and lay the ball back in.

That's a marked difference from recent teams. While this team might not win any championships, it has shown the type of mentality that was the hallmark of so many of John Wooden's teams – the mentality of a champion.

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