You got the bad Bruins in the first half and the good Bruins in the second. You saw the wide range of what this young, erratic team is capable of – what we've seen during the course of the season – all over the course of the game's 40 minutes.
It's extremely fortunate – as we said in the preview of this game – that USC also is a team with a dual personality. You got to see the good Trojans and then the bad Trojans.
And the catalyst – the medium, if you will – that conjured up both of these team's other personalities in the second half was UCLA's defense.
At about the 18-minute mark in the second half, with UCLA down 15 points, UCLA's defense then went on a very impressive run itself. It made stops against USC in 15 of USC's next 19 possessions. The improved defense was fueled by the Bruins being more active on the ball and finally improving on their switches on screens, which has been their Achilles Heel for three games. This brought out the Good Bruins, and gave them an opportunity on offense to get back in the game. It also brought out the Bad Trojans; as USC started to sense they couldn't get a good look at the basket with UCLA playing better defense, they started taking worse and worse shots.
See, that's how good defense works.
When Arron Afflalo hit a series of three three-pointers to bring UCLA even with USC, 54-54 at the 8:30 mark, the transformation of the two teams was complete.
And as we've said throughout the season, UCLA's defense seems to be inspired when it starts playing better offensively. UCLA shot 27% in the first half. The game's TV announcers and many other observers on the message boards were citing USC's zone defense as the culprit. But very simply UCLA missed many open shots again to make USC's zone defense look far more effective than it was. But then UCLA came out in the second half, and Dijon Thompson hit his first two shots, one of them being a three, and UCLA's defense then livened up. When Brian Morrison then hit his deep three with about 14 minutes left to bring UCLA to within 10, 50-40, UCLA's defense was then completely feeding off its offensive success – again. UCLA's defense was so active by that point, USC only got a couple of good shots for the rest of the game, and then completely broke down, turning the ball over with bad shots and horrible passes.
So, if you're looking for any kind of "tells" for this UCLA team, here's the easiest one: As soon as UCLA hits a couple of shots, be prepared for it to start playing some inspired defense.
In the first half, USC's defense did keep UCLA from getting a field goal for about a 9-minute period, but amazingly enough UCLA was still relatively in the game, trailing by just 31-25 with about two minutes left in the half. In other words, it could have been much worse. USC wasn't very efficient on its offensive end of the court itself. That is, until USC then went on a blur of a 12-0 run the last two minutes of the half (scoring 8 points in less than a minute), to go up 43-25 at the break. With the way UCLA was playing – unable to hit open shots and turning the ball over on offense and playing slow, inactive defense – it did seem just like a matter of time before a run like this happened. UCLA almost managed to avoid it and get into halftime, but all it took was the last two minutes of the half for it to implode.
So many fans are asking – how can UCLA play so badly in the first half like it did? It's actually not that difficult of a question to answer. First, basketball is a game of chance. The ball can bounce in a number of different ways. Sometimes it bounces in your favor and other times it doesn't. But you then also have to play the odds against those elements of chance. If you play good defense, sure, you'll lose some games. Hey, again, chance is involved, and even when playing good defense the ball can bounce against you. But good defense increases the odds in your favor. More often than not you'll win if you play good defense or, at the very least, be in a position to win. And sometimes playing good defense you'll win games you have no right to win.
In the first half of this game, UCLA wasn't playing good defense, but was still in the game up until that run in the last two minutes merely because of chance. USC, luckily, wasn't a team capable of really taking advantage of it as much as they could have. USC should have been up by 30+ at the end of the first half. But, as it proves out, the odds quite often will play out against you, as they did in the last two minutes.
UCLA's first-half defense consisted of poor on-the-ball defending and particularly some bad switching on screens. The Bruins just look lazy switching on screens, at least in the first half, with the personnel that played in those first 20 minutes.
And offensively, it wasn't USC's zone defense that shut down UCLA's offense. USC's zone was very poor. UCLA had open looks and open lanes to the basket, they just couldn't convert. Then, if you combine a team collectively shooting poorly along with Brian Morrison out of control and turning the ball over, you have the makings of a pretty unproductive offense.
But even so, even if you concede UCLA's turnovers in the first half, even those made by Jordan Farmar in those last two minutes, what it comes down to mostly is that UCLA lives or dies by chance – by whether it is "on" in its shooting. While UCLA did force a few shots, UCLA had many open looks in that first half and just couldn't knock them down. If it makes those shots, it's a different first half. UCLA probably starts playing better defense earlier, USC starts breaking down earlier, and USC doesn't go on its two-minute run.
But that's what you get if you're a team that plays by chance, putting all your money on the bet that you're going to shoot well that night. It's a far better bet if you first play defense. While, again, there's no guarantee you'll win, if you play defense the odds are in your favor and you're not as dependent on the pure luck of how the ball bounces.
Until UCLA's young players get this, they'll be erratic. You're going to get the big swings we've seen this year – allowing huge runs against and also coming back from huge deficits.
Probably the most encouraging about the game were the players UCLA made its defensive run with in the second half. It was with freshman post Lorenzo Mata and to a another great extent, sophomore power forward Matt McKinney. Both Mata and McKinney were integral in UCLA climbing back into the game from the 18-point deficit. With about 10 minutes in the game, UCLA was trailing 51-54. USC screened and on the switch, Matt McKinney actually moved over and blocked a USC lay-up. Mata was active on the boards and around the basket on defense, often disrupting USC's post players in the second half, which led to turnovers. Before that he had made a number of crucial plays to keep UCLA's run alive, including a big tip-in at the 14-minute mark to keep UCLA within ten at 50-40.
So, then, it all then fed off itself. UCLA hit its first couple of shots in the second half, which led to it playing far better defense, which then led to it playing tougher and more confidently on offense. It was almost as if someone then plugged in Arron Affalo, as he hit those big three consecutive threes to put UCLA up by five, 62-57, and complete the turnaround. Then Dijon Thompson's plug was put in the socket as he carried UCLA the rest of the remaining 8 minutes, scoring 10 points down the stretch, mostly by out-hustling USC.
Again, it'd be really nice if someone could just plug in UCLA's defense on its own, without it having to wait for electricity generated from its offense.
The win, overall, wasn't the biggest in Ben Howland's tenure, but perhaps the most critical. The season was on the verge of being pronounced dead after UCLA's two deflating losses against the Bay Area schools. The win sustained UCLA's life for the season. At now 11-6 and 5-4 in conference, UCLA is holding on to that #4 spot in the league. A loss here would have dropped them to sixth in the conference, and probably fighting to accomplish a winning record for the season. Their back would have been shoved considerably hard against the wall. It was so critical for UCLA to win, it wouldn't have provided any moral victory if UCLA had made the comeback from the 18-point deficit and then lost. This was a game with no potential moral victory.
With the second half of the Pac-10 now remaining, UCLA faces some tough matchups, like against Stanford in Palo Alto, and Washington in Seattle. What's most critical for the season, though, is that while UCLA could use some upsets in games like those, it needs to desperately hold serve in games against teams it will be favored against. In other words, it needs to try to hedge against chance, and have the best odds working for it.
That sounds like a job for defense.