UCLA secured at least one win in its most critical road trip of the season, beating Arizona State Thursday in Tempe, 86-82.
It did it with superior coaching, discipline and desire.
Not to put down Arizona State, but this game was such a great harbinger for the future. This is probably ASU's best team in years, and probably the best it can hope to have for many years. This UCLA team is, compared to future teams, just merely the beginning. And UCLA still out-played the Sun Devils on their own floor.
The better-coached team was evident Thursday, as it has been for the last several Bruin games. When the opposing teams start breaking down during a game, playing slack defense and their offense breaks down to one-on-one play, UCLA, in fact, is going the other direction. It is playing with discipline and a purpose, executing the offense and playing sound defense.
It has been a pattern in the last few games. UCLA starts off slowly, mainly because the other team is playing at a heightened level, playing inspired defense initially and executing their offense.
But as the game wears on, the opposition hasn't been able to sustain it, while UCLA consistently plays well-coached basketball. At the 6:22 mark of the first half, UCLA was down 32-20 against ASU. From that point on, it clearly out-played Arizona State by executing on offense and playing good defense.
It's clearly been the most significant difference in UCLA's last several big wins.
Perhaps the best example of good coaching and good execution was the double-teaming of ASU's great post player, Ike Diogu. Diogu had 15 points, eight below his season average, and the points he did make were on very difficult moves. UCLA's interior defense was superb against Diogu, with one post closing him off on the baseline and the other quickly coming over to double tightly, with hands up and without reaching. It tied Diogu's season low, and was his worst shooting performance of the year, going 6 for 16 from the field. It was a huge difference-maker in the game. Obviously, if Diogu gets his average UCLA loses. ASU later in the game began trying to get Diogu the ball at the free-throw line to give him more room to operate against the double-team, but it was too late and there just simply weren't enough possessions left in the game for it to make a difference at that point.
That interior defense, and a solid perimeter defense that got better as the night went on, limited ASU to 42% shooting for the night, and 27% from three.
It was a great recognition by UCLA that ASU simply didn't have anyone else on the squad who can consistently beat you. And, in many ways, if you left it up to some of ASU's other players, they'd tend to beat themselves.
It can't be repeated enough how clutch UCLA's freshmen are. Their collective ability to go into hostile environments and play without jitters is truly impressive. UCLA's starting freshmen had 46 points between the three of them. All three of them - point guard Jordan Farmar and wings Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp - had clutch moments that were very decisive in the win.
Probably none bigger was Afflalo's cool-headed catch and shoot of a three coming off a pick with three minutes left to put UCLA up a critical 6 points, 76-71. It was done with such confidence and so much deliberate intention it was stunning. Afflalo had one of his best games, finishing with 17 points and 4 assists. He was particularly effective in posting up his defender in the paint and played good defense the entire game.
Josh Shipp also had some critical moments. One, a leaning, twisting lay-in against Ike Diogu late in the game, and a big dunk on a break with about 3:30 left that gave UCLA a four-point lead.
Jordan Farmar definitely had some moments where he put the game in jeopardy, but he also carried the team for many critical stretches. You had to look away when Farmar fouled ASU's Kevin Kruger behind the three-point line, sending him to the free-throw line to shoot three, which drew the Sun Devils within three points with just 23 seconds to play. It wasn't a smart play, and perhaps Farmar's worst decision of his young UCLA career. But Farmar easily made up for it over the course of the game, scoring 20 big points to lead UCLA. With UCLA down by 12 in the first half, he keyed a big 24-9 run to close out the half. In a 6-minute stretch he scored points, mostly on athletic drives, many times drawing fouls. He has an uncanny knack of being able to lay the ball in from low-percentage angles when driving that also give him a chance to draw a foul. While he had 6 turnovers, it was pretty understandable, with Farmar looking particularly tired after having some of ASU's best athletes thrown at him defensively in waves. ASU's point guard Jason Braxton is perhaps the best 6-2 athlete on the west coast, and not only having to fend him off on offense but having to guard him on defense took its toll on Farmar. Then ASU threw another good 6-2 athlete, Tyrone Jackson, at Farmar, and he fouled out guarding him. Farmar played a team-leading, tough 35 minutes.
Senior Dijon Thompson had a very good game, finishing with 19 points, and cooly hitting some big shots when UCLA needed a basket. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to Thompson was the injury to his hand - that forced the UCLA coaching staff to play Shipp, and then realize how invaluable Shipp is, and move Thompson to the four. He is an offensive force at the four, creating so many matchup problems for bigger, slower defenders, while also having played good post defense.
UCLA's offensive philosophy, you could see in this game, is starting to develop and blossom. Head Coach Ben Howland has emphasized how he wants to run and get easy transition baskets. He has said how he knows he needs the half-court offense to run through the low-post to give it two scoring dimensions. In this game, the offense truly did both. In one stretch near the beginning of the second half, a stretch that was critical for UCLA to establish a lead, UCLA got its interior post player a good touch on five successive possessions. It resulted in a nice turnaround basket for Michael Fey, after he had gotten deep position in semi-transition. It also was responsible for a nice dunk from Thompson on a drive through the middle of the lane, on a dish from Fey in the block. UCLA also got the ball out on the break well, getting a couple of easy transition baskets to stretch its lead over ASU to go up by eight. It was probably the best 7 or 8 minutes that UCLA has executed its offense.
It also, admittedly, benefits from playing a team whose defense starts breaking down considerably. UCLA wants to run, but it's clear that it needs to rebound and also play teams that don't make the effort to defend in transition very well.
And in regards to rebounding, UCLA had a good night, out-rebounding the Sun Devils, 41-35. While we're now starting to take the good team rebounding effort by UCLA for granted, it was critical in keying many of the easy, transition points UCLA got in taking the edge on the game over ASU.
As we've been saying for a while now, this team has a champion's mentality. The freshmen all were champions in high school, and know the mental approach it takes to win. It's been infectious, with it igniting in the veterans as well. It was never more evident in the last couple of minutes of the game, with ASU fouling UCLA and sending a variety of Bruins to the free-throw line. Each stepped up and made a total of eight of eight critical free throws, including Afflalo's composed two to ice the game with 7 seconds left.
Watching this Bruin team, playing with three freshman starting, a small forward at power forward, only really eight scholarship players who can play consistently at this level, and a champion's mentality, has been the most entertaining show in UCLA's recent history.
The road show continues Saturday against Arizona in Tucson, a game, if they won, that could really put them over the top in terms of national recognition and the NCAA tournament.