UCLA, with the talent and experience it has, playing at close to its optimum level, outplayed vastly more-talented Arizona for about 22 and ½ minutes. They did it with hustle and just wanting it more.
But then, the team that is far less talented let down and the far more talented team took its rightful place in the game.
As we said, if UCLA had played its best game of the year, and continued to generally play the way it had in the first 22 and ½ minutes, it probably would have won. But it's hard for any team, on any give day, that is less talented to sustain the effort and, well, luck, to pull it off for 40 minutes.
You just can't do it on mere desire. It's something the UCLA community needs to recognize. After the game Saturday, there were so many bitterly disappointed UCLA fans complaining to me as Pauley Pavilion cleared out. I could see Head Coach Ben Howland was disappointed, as were the players.
But the UCLA community – its coaches, players and fans – are getting just a little bit impatient. While it would have been nice for UCLA to over-achieve and pull off this upset now, it's still premature to expect this team to beat one like Arizona in this situation.
And it would have truly been over-achieving. Arizona is very talented, and they've been playing very well lately, and did in this game Saturday.
UCLA just doesn't have the horses to run side-by-side with the Arizonas of the world yet, and it was never more evident Saturday. UCLA's go-to guy, senior Dijon Thompson, wasn't having a good night, and the rest of the team was carrying the effort – for 22 ½ minutes. But without its go-to guy, it couldn't sustain it.
It also exposed just how deficient UCLA is in its talent in the post. It got a total of 4 points out of its five spot, from among three players, while Arizona got 11, from one player. UCLA had a total of 14 points from its two post positions while Arizona had 30. UCLA, without the horses, was a one-dimensional team, a perimeter-oriented, outside shooting team. And as the old axiom goes, if you live by the outside shot you'll die by the outside shot, which is what UCLA did Saturday.
And not only was there a huge distinction in frontline talent between teams, but there is a huge distinction in level of performance between Arizona's and UCLA's perimeter players, based on experience. While UCLA has three talented players in Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp, they are only three freshmen. Arizona can throw five at you who, arguably, are as talented as UCLA's three freshmen, and they are one senior, two juniors, a sophomore and a freshman. That's thirteen seasons of experience compared to just three for UCLA. Jawann McClellan, Arizona's freshman, was considered by many a better prospect that both Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp out of high school, and he came off the bench to play just 15 minutes Saturday, as the fifth Arizona perimeter player. Afflalo and Shipp played 59 minutes as UCLA's starters. If they were playing for Arizona, they'd be coming off the bench for 15 minutes.
There was also never a more clear illustration of the difference in athleticism as when Arizona's Hassan Adams literally jumped over three Bruins to get a rebound and a putback toward the end of the first half.
Yes, it was a tough defeat to take, mostly because UCLA teased you. They were in the game, and playing better for those first 22 ½ minutes.
But then UCLA gained a five-point lead at 47-42 at the 17:31-minute mark in the second half, and Arizona coach Lute Olson called a timeout. It was easily the turning point of the game. UCLA, to that point, had out-hustled and out-played Arizona. Rebounding is always an indication of desire in a game, and UCLA had out-rebounded Arizona to that point 24-15. They had played pretty strong defense, not allowing Arizona's shooters to get open looks and just a couple of points in transition. Offensively, even though Thompson was being limited, UCLA still led 39-38 at the half, mostly because of the 15 points scored by Farmar. But others were also stepping up while Thompson was struggling, with Brian Morrison and Afflalo hitting a couple of big threes each, going into halftime with 8 and 9 points, respectively.
At the half, Thompson's lack of production was actually encouraging. You had to be thinking – "Hey, if UCLA can lead at halftime, what's going to happen in the second half if Thompson gets on track offensively?"
It was a legitimate assertion. One problem with the assertion was, though, that Thompson never got on track. Arizona had a great approach defending him, the same theory that other teams have had that have shut him down – put a quick big man on him. Stanford put Matt Haryasz on him, and Arizona had Channing Frye, its 6-11 center guard him. And it was particularly effective. Frye showed that he's quick enough to stay with Thompson on the perimeter, since Thompson isn't very laterally quick anyway. And with Frye's length, Thompson couldn't get a shot off over him. Then, if you get Thompson flustered early offensively, he usually is out of rhythm for the entire game. Thompson has been able to put up big numbers in games when he's matched up against someone generally his size or smaller. But, as we've said before, it's all about matchups and Arizona has the personnel that it can afford to put its 6-11 center on Thompson. It helps Arizona particularly that UCLA doesn't have a real offensive threat in the post between Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins, so it could afford to play Frye on Thompson.
Mostly, though, the less-talented, over-achieving team ran out of intensity at that 22 and ½ minute mark. After Lute Olson called the timeout, Arizona came out with great defensive intensity, and UCLA didn't. UCLA lacked defensive effort and Arizona got clear open looks, that it then knocked down. Arizona, on the other hand, kicked up its defense a notch, not allowing UCLA any real open looks for a period of close to five minutes. Howland tried to call a couple of timeouts, shuttled in difference personnel, but with Arizona's talent playing at its optimum level, UCLA just doesn't have those horses, remember. In about five minutes, UCLA went scoreless while Arizona put up 19 straight points to go ahead 61-47, and the Wildcats now had their margin of victory that they could just hold on to for the rest of the remaining 12 minutes or so of the game.
Hey, it was a great timeout for Olson. In the huddle, you could see him getting on his players, and they responded. The guy isn't a Hall of Fame coach for nothing.
In that five-minute, scoreless stretch, UCLA forced some shots, mostly because they had to, with Arizona's defense not giving them any open looks. And UCLA being the one-dimensional, outside-shooting team it is since it just doesn't have the players, couldn't get any scoring punch from its interior.
Jordan Farmar had a spectacular game, though, and tried to carry the team on his shoulders. The two knocks on Farmar so far this season have been defensive focus and his lack of aggressiveness on offense early in games. He answered both knocks on Saturday, playing consistently good defensive, and finishing with 27 points and five assists against just two turnovers. And early on, in the first half, it was obvious UCLA was calling plays for Farmar and he was aggressively looking for his shot. He hit three threes in the first half – whereas in some games he hadn't even attempted three threes in both halves. He was driving to the basket and scoring or creating. If you were an Arizona fan, it had to really gnaw at you watching the McDonald's All-American point guard who had grown up an Arizona fan score 15 points in the first half against you.
The discrepancy in talent on the frontline between the teams was really made clear after that timeout. When Ivan Radenovic missed a jumper, Frye out-fought Fey for an offensive rebound, and then put the ball back up and converted the lay-up, while Fey fouled him, with Frye making the foul shot. Fey was not only beaten for the rebound, but then failed to really foul Frye enough to keep him from making the shot while getting fouled. UCLA got the ball and Fey missed a jumper. He then committed two more fouls in the next 15 seconds or so, and you could feel the beginning of the momentum turn.
It was all Arizona needed really. An inspirational threat by its head coach in a timeout, and one clear advantage talent-wise at one matchup on the court to manifest itself among many clear advantages in personnel matchups.
And it truly was about defense, again. In that five minutes of pain, Arizona played intensely on defense while UCLA didn't. And if rebounding indicates desire, it clearly did here, too. In that span, Arizona out-rebounded UCLA 8 to 3. UCLA had gotten many second chances on offense in the first half when they out-hustled Arizona on the offensive boards, but in that five-minute stretch UCLA only had one possession where it wasn't one shot and out.
So, UCLA is about 56% of the way back from the Steve Lavin Debacle to being a top ten program again. It was able to out-play Arizona for 22 and ½ minutes, which is 56% of the game. But sustaining it for 40 minutes would have been complete over-achieving. When you're out-manned it's only a matter of time until your luck runs out.
It's something the UCLA community has to realize – that the resurrection of the program is still on a good, solid course. There will be times when we get teased into believing it could happen sooner – prematurely – but you then have to step back and realize some stark facts.
And there will probably be more times when we get teased prematurely. Next year, when the team is ranked #22 in the nation, it will tease us into believing it's a top-10 program, and we'll feel much the same way we do now.
But make no mistake, the resurrection is on course, as is the indication from a game like this. Not only should the UCLA community realize it, but the rest of the Pac-10 knows it.
During the game, there was a regular to the BRO message boards who was heckling Lute Olson from behind the Arizona bench, and obviously irking the coach. At the end of the game, the fan yelled to Lute, "That will be the last time you win at Pauley Pavilion, Lute!" Olson was noticeably wrankled, so much to the point that he shot a few inappropriate comments back at the fan.
Olson knows what's up. While it might not be the last time he wins in Pauley Pavilion, he knows that with Howland at UCLA, his run over the Bruins is coming to an end.