At least, if you've been a Bruin basketball fan for the last few years.
It's experiencing a phenomenon that the UCLA basketball team builds a considerable, double-digit lead through great play, and then holds on to the lead for a win.
UCLA did just that Thursday night against Cal in Berkeley, winning 77-62.
It was a great, moral victory – that actually was a victory. It avenged the loss a month ago to Cal in Pauley Pavilion, a defeat that really shook the team, the program and cast quite a bit of doubt on the season. It was UCLA's worst game of the season.
And curiously, the game Thursday night was the exact opposite. A month ago, Cal was the team that played with energy and conviction, and UCLA was lethargic. This time it was UCLA that had the intensity and Cal was flat.
The game was another sign that UCLA is starting to put the pieces together. It took a while during this season to realize what the pieces were, given this team, but it now appears that Ben Howland has the puzzle just about constructed.
First, this game showed once again that defense is the main piece to the puzzle, no matter who you are or how much talent you have. Cal shot 36% for the game, mostly due to UCLA's excellent defense. It was probably the best defensive effort by the Bruins all season, and it definitely is what allowed UCLA to maintain a double-digit lead for most of the game. After not doubling the post in their first meeting, UCLA did it to perfection in this one, with a second defender coming over quickly to double David Paris or Rod Benson anytime they caught the ball. In the first meeting the two combined for 34 points and 19 rebounds. In this one, just 18 and 11. In fact, David Paris was shut down, scoring just 6 points with zero rebounds.
But to make a post-doubling defense work, the other components of your defense have to be quick to rotate and compensate because, obviously, there is another offensive player now open. UCLA did this the best they had all season, with Cal only a couple of times finding an open man out of the double in the post. UCLA rotated well down to Cal's other post player on the baseline, and did an excellent job of jumping out to Cal's shooters and challenging them. In fact, so much of UCLA's defense was taken up a notch in this game, from its excellent hedging on screens to the point of disrupting Cal's offense entirely, to smartly allowing Cal's bad shooters to be the ones to have the open looks. Most of the time you'd really prefer that Ayinke Ubaka or Marquis Kately are the ones taking the threes, since they're both shooting 25% from three on the season. While, at the same time, Cal's real shooter, Richard Midgely, was held to five points on 1-of-10 shooting, mostly because UCLA defenders were in his face challenging just about every one of his shots. Every Bruin played well defensively, from Michael Fey, Ryan Hollins and Dijon Thompson in the post, to Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp on the perimeter. Jordan Farmar perhaps played his best defensive game, showing great effort and intensity.
It wasn't just about effort, but it truly was also about playing smart defensively, too, with a sound game defensive game plan. It was not only doubling the post, and allowing Cal's bad shooters the open looks, but emphasizing getting back on transition defense, and using Fey and Hollins as the guys to primarily defend Cal's designated post scorer. Even though Lorenzo Mata was out for the game with a bruised sternum, it didn't look like he would play much anyway, since Fey and Hollins have generally been combining to provide good post defense recently.
On rebounding, UCLA had a dominating effort in the first half, but then slacked off a bit for about a ten-minute stretch in the second half. After completely out-working Cal on the boards for most of the game, UCLA allowed the Bears to get relatively back in the game by failing to block out in the second half. UCLA ended up winning the board battle, 37-35, but it was perhaps the one area where UCLA didn't sustain effort throughout the game's 40 minutes.
On offense, UCLA wasn't as efficient as you'd ideally like, but again, they're improving and the pieces are coming together. Cal didn't use the zone that shut down the Bruins in their first matchup much. UCLA had some problems with either man-to-man or zone alternately. When UCLA came out to start the game and turned the ball over on three of its first possessions, it wasn't a good sign. It's quite obvious by now that a huge piece of the puzzle for the season offensively is getting Dijon Thompson some good touches on the ball on every possession. When Thompson got his first real good touch, on UCLA's fifth possession, he nailed a three-pointer. UCLA then got Thompson touching the ball, and Thompson then scored eight of UCLA's next ten points, putting UCLA up 11-5. That first mini-run by Thompson within the first seven minutes or so was critical in establishing UCLA's ownership in this game. Thompson ended with 23 points and nine rebounds.
UCLA also did what Howland preached all week before the game – getting Fey touches in the post. He emphasized repeatedly that it doesn't necessarily have to result in Fey scoring, but at least getting the post the ball so the defense has to collapse, which the Bruins did well. Fey had a decent night, converting many of those touches. He had a great seal-off at about the 7-minute mark in the first half that he finished to put UCLA up 22-13. But, in Fey fashion, the next trip down the court he missed an easy two-footer where he went up passively. Fey was 4-of-11 for the night, missing quite a few easy attempts, finishing with 8 points and 4 rebounds (and it certainly seemed like he had more boards that that). But even if Fey isn't converting some good looks, and you shake your head in frustration, getting him the ball is crucial to UCLA's offense working, and that was evident Thursday night.
Josh Shipp was a huge force in this game, both offensively and defensively. He has started to shy away from taking his threes, in this game missing just the two he attempted, but he's making up for it in many ways. Shipp had so many key rebounds in traffic that he was able to convert or that then kept the possession alive. He does so many little things that don't necessarily show up on a box score, too, like tipping a rebound to a teammate or making the extra pass. He's still a freshman, and he'll make a blunder every once in a while, but he more than made up for it in this game with his heady play. He finished with 11 points and 6 huge rebounds.
Arron Afflalo came through down the stretch with some key plays to help sustain UCLA's advantage in the second half. He did, though, at times early in the game, hurt the Bruins by being too wound up and out of control. Afflalo is an emotional player and he needs to learn to control it in games where the emotional intensity is high. When he's so hyped up he tends to over-penetrate and turn the ball over, or take a desperate shot.
Brian Morrison, as everyone knows, is the Department Head of Too-Wound-Up. There was a series of possessions in the second half with UCLA holding a comfortable 15 to 20 point margin where Morrison seemed like he single-handedly was going to put Cal back in the game. Over the course of a few minutes, about halfway through the half, he was the cause of essentially three turnovers, and then Cal converted offensively on the other end as a result. At that point, with UCLA holding a commanding lead, it was really just a matter of the Bruins not turning the ball over, running the shot clock down and taking a decent shot after 30 seconds and UCLA would win. But Morrison and Afflalo forced the action, turned the ball over and took quick shots.
You were probably second-guessing Howland at the time – why was Morrison in the game? Well, you have to get Farmar a breather for the last stretch run of the game, and with UCLA up by about 17, you'd have to think this was the time to do it.
Farmar made a bonehead play of his own when he was called for a technical foul after throwing an elbow at Cal's point guard Martin Smith during a dead ball. That, and a flurry of UCLA turnovers, got Cal going on a mini-run that brought them to within 60-49 with about 7 minutes left in the game. Rebounding and defense then reversed the trend, and within a couple of minutes UCLA had pushed the advantage back up to 18.
If there are still any doubters out there about Howland's emphasis on defense and rebounding, this game should silence them. UCLA had just an okay offensive night. They did shoot 50% but the 16 turnovers, while low for this team, hurt them, as well as the missed easy opportunities around the basket. What won this game was defense, keeping Cal to 36% shooting because of a great combination of post defense and energetic perimeter defense.
And if there are any doubt out there about Howland's approach to success, this game should also dispel them. Cal, arguably, has comparable talent to UCLA. But if you do what Howland emphasizes, play tough man-to-man D, rebound, and get out and run and score points in transition while operating strong set plays offensively, it's pretty obvious you're going to win more times than not. Imagine once Howland has a generally talented team to plug into this formula. Imagine once Howland has some interior players who can rebound and finish consistently.
In fact, even though UCLA won fairly easily by 15, it should have been even more one-sided. UCLA only played about 30 good minutes in this game. There was a stretch of the last couple of minutes in the first half and about ten minutes in the second half where they slacked off on rebounding and played out of control offensively and turned over the ball.
The pieces are definitely coming together. UCLA has now generally played good defense for five straight games, and it's improving with every outing. They're getting more consistent in their rebounding effort. And they are taking to heart what they need to do offensively to be successful – get Thompson touches, get the ball inside consistently, have Farmar aggressively look to score and the overall not force the action by being out-of-control.
They're getting closer. In each of their last five games, they're playing this way for longer periods of the game. So while the pieces are coming together, there is still quite a bit of room for the puzzle to be completed.