It was not only a big win in terms of post-season ramifications, but the Bruins' biggest victory margin over an opponent since Howland took over the UCLA head coaching job.
The win went a long way in helping UCLA gain some advantage in its post-season chances, distancing itself from ASU to become clearly one of the top four teams in the Pac-10 standings. Washington and Arizona both won Thursday, making them each 10-2. Stanford doesn't play Cal until Saturday, in Palo Alto, which is a likely victory for the Cardinal, making them 7-5, and tied with UCLA but ahead in terms of a tiebreaker. UCLA, though, at 7-5, takes a big step ahead of ASU, which falls to 5-7. Cal and Oregon State are at 5-6.
On the court it was a big win, first, for the very simple reason that UCLA built a double-digit lead for the first time this season and didn't relinquish it. After a strong run to end the first half, UCLA had a 46-32 advantage at the break, and never allowed ASU to get closer than 12 points in the second half, most of the time maintaining a 14-to-17 point lead.
It was a very unfamiliar feeling for UCLA fans, to be sweating a lead rather than sweating a comeback from a deficit.
Even so, there was still a feeling that the double-digit advantage could evaporate within a minute of game clock at any time. In this game, points could be put up on the scoreboard rather quickly, and you felt the game wasn't really secure until maybe three or four minutes remaining in the second half.
In the preview of the game, we said that this matchup with ASU would be primarily all about defense – about UCLA playing it, and ASU not.
In retrospect, that was fairly accurate. UCLA played generally good defense, allowing ASU to shoot 41% from the field and just 37% in the first half, which gave the Bruins its advantage. ASU didn't get very many open looks, with UCLA's defenders not allowing ASU's regular outside shooters, Kevin Kruger or Bryson Krueger, to get too many open shots. Inside, UCLA double- and sometimes triple-teamed ASU All-American post, Ike Diogu. Diogu scored 20 points, but as Howland said, they were hard-earned points. He shot 4 for 10, and struggled to get out of a Bruin sandwich whenever he caught the ball. The first few times he got double-teamed it looked like he traveled, and it took the refs a few more times before they called him for shuffling his feet, and then the flood gates opened and Diogu was called for traveling four times. He went through a very long dry spell in the second half where UCLA played good defense on him and ASU, fortunately, didn't get him many touches.
ASU was kept in the game by one of those magical shooting nights from Steve Moore, ASU's senior wing. As we've said before, Moore is really streaky and can get hot, and he was on fire Thursday, scoring a career-high 31 points on 8 of 11 threes. Even with UCLA defenders in his face, from 24 feet out, he was hitting his shot.
On the other end of the equation, as we thought might happen, ASU played its typically poor defense. Not only did the Bruins get open looks in the half court, it got heaps of points in transition, with ASU's players just too lazy to get back to defend. UCLA shot an astounding 60% for the game, which happens when you get so many lay-ups.
It was a perfect set-up for senior Dijon Thompson to have a career game, scoring a career-high 39 points and hitting 7 of 9 threes. If someone had told you that Thompson would score 39 points you would have thought he was forcing a shot every time he touched the ball, but he scored completely within the flow of UCLA's offense. ASU's defense was so bad that it gave Thompson open looks early, which he knocked down. Then, once he got it going, ASU's defense still gave him open looks, which he knocked down. In fact, Thompson passed up some good open looks.
Thompson, though, definitely had it going, and ASU, with its poor defense, was the perfect game to get it going. In warm-ups Thompson looked like he couldn't miss a shot, and when he came out and hit his first one – a three – so effortlessly, you could sense that the senior was going to have a big night. He scored 27 points in the first half – 27 of UCLA's total of 46. He was clearly UCLA's offense in the first half, at one point having 19 of UCLA's 22 points.
UCLA's freshmen, meanwhile, weren't shooting well in the first half. Jordan Farmar, Josh Shipp and Arron Afflalo were 3 for 10 from the field, and 0 for 4 from three in the first 20 minutes. They had open looks, too. If they had just hit a few of those open looks in the first half UCLA would have been up by 20+ at the break.
Farmar looked tentative, with a few open shots that he didn't take. When he got his third foul in the last couple of minutes of the half on a bad decision to foul Jason Braxton on a breakaway, you thought that Farmar possibly wasn't going to have a very good game.
But in the second half, as has been the case many times this season with him, Farmar turned it around. UCLA ran a couple of plays for him, and he was more aggressive in taking his shot. At about the 18 minute mark, ASU had scored five quick points and looked like they had the chance to get back in the game. But Farmar had a personal run himself. In the course of four minutes, he hit three threes and had a beautiful behind-the-head assist to Michael Fey for a short jumper, and UCLA built its lead back to 60-42.
Farmar stepping up truly was a hugely critical sequence in the game. You thought that ASU, with Moore shooting out of his mind, could easily make a quick run and get the lead back down to single digits. Thompson had come out in the second half and missed his first two shots. It felt like a potential UCLA collapse was imminent. But Farmar took the mantle from Thompson and carried the offense for that critical five minutes. He ended up scoring 18 points in the game, all in the second half.
Brian Morrison also made a significant contribution, scoring 13 points and hitting three threes. There were times when he was edging into his out-of-control play, but if he's shooting the ball well it's difficult to keep him on the bench, with the boost his shooting provides.
It was probably one of the most enjoyable Bruin games in recent memory to watch. Most recent wins have been nail-biters, with UCLA playing inconsistently and having to come back from big deficits. This was fairly more secure most of the way. And it was very enjoyable to watch the Bruins get so many baskets on the break, and get the crowd on its feet.
Perhaps UCLA was never as potentially vulnerable to losing its lead as it might have seemed. After all, every time ASU looked like it was getting a little offensive momentum, you could always rely on them to play poor defense and allow UCLA some quick, easy points in transition to again puff up the lead.
This team, after its Bay Area Breakdown a couple of weekends ago, has now showed some good progress. We harped all season that the team didn't tend to play defense unless their offense was successful. In the last three games, UCLA has played good defense, and seemingly independently of how they were doing offensively.
They also faced a zone from ASU most of the game and UCLA handled it fairly well. It really hasn't been a case that UCLA hasn't executed well against a zone, but zones have taken them out of their rhythm just enough for them to miss their outside shots consistently. Thursday night, facing a zone, Thompson and fellow senior Brian Morrison hit their outside shots.
The young Bruins also showed maturity in the second half breaking ASU's fullcourt press. From about the 12-minute mark to the 8-minute mark in the second half, the Sun Devils applied full court pressure, but UCLA, through strong passing and decisions, broke it fairly easily. It also led to a great moment, when Dijon Thompson fed Fey for a huge dunk. When Fey took off pretty far from the rim you had to wonder if he was going to make it, but he did, dramatically. Such a big dunk has to be a confidence-builder for Fey, and it seemed to be when on the next defensive trip he ripped down a big rebound aggressively.
UCLA's interior defense has also improved considerably in the last three games, probably mostly because Lorenzo Mata hasn't played much. Mata, we believe, has a great future at UCLA, but at this point in his development he's a liability at post defense. Since Fey and Ryan Hollins have played the bulk of the minutes at the five in the last three games, UCLA's interior defense has been much improved.
In fact, UCLA really only utilized 7 players Thursday night. The new, shorter rotation has seemed to give the players, particularly Fey and Hollins, a good rhythm for each of the last three games. Of course, who plays depends so much on player matchups, but if the center position uses Fellins to get 8-to12 rebounds per game and play good post defense, that would be considered a win in itself.
After a victory like this, your perspective tends to change a bit, on the team and the season. Really, if it wasn't for the Cal game at home, when UCLA packed it in, there wouldn't be almost any real residual negativity about the season. And, after such a win, it's now fairly easy to envision UCLA beating Arizona Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
Of course, with the way this season has gone, anything is possible. It's still not difficult to envision this team suffering some bad losses the rest of the way. But a win like this makes it generally a bit easier to envision some more wins and an NCAA tournament berth.