Light at the End of the Tunnel

UCLA beats Oregon to finish 18-9 and fourth in the Pac-10, and earn almost a certain bid for the NCAA tournament. It's the first successful season for UCLA in football or basketball in three years...

It was almost as if Josh Shipp was a bit put out by the praise heaped on the other two freshmen perimeter players, Arron Afflalo and Jordan Farmar, last week.

Afflalo and Farmar were extensively praised, including by us, this week, for how they've stepped up to help carry the team down the stretch of the season.

Shipp proved Saturday against Oregon that he also needs to be including in that praise, scoring a game-high 20 points in leading UCLA to a 73-61 victory over Oregon.

The win puts UCLA at 18-9 to finish the regular season, and fourth in the Pac-10.

It was UCLA's fourth win in a row, and it again proved the maturity of UCLA's freshmen-now-sophomores Afflalo, Shipp and Farmar.

Early in the season, UCLA would tend to shut down offensively if its senior, Dijon Thompson, wasn't having a good offensive game. 

Over the course of a the season, though, Farmar learned he needed to shoulder some of the scoring burden, and he did.

Afflalo then also stepped up and started shooting really well.

Shipp now follows in line.

With Thompson struggling again, scoring just 10 points on 3-of-10 shooting, everyone in the building was waiting for Farmar or Afflalo to pick up the slack. But this time Shipp did, especially in a critical stretch at about 7 minutes left in the game when he made 7 of UCLA's 9 points to offset a mini-run by the Ducks.

Shipp did it with jumpers and particularly with being able to get into the paint and score.  It was particularly noteworthy given that his sprained ankle is still not 100%. 

It was also a great showcase for Shipp, since he was going head-to-head with Oregon's Malik Hairston, the player he's been compared to often since Hairston came close to coming to UCLA.  While Hairston is a very nice prospect, on this day Shipp definitely got the best of him, in statistics and on defense, with Shipp being Hairston's primary defender and holding him to nine points for the game. 

On one hand it's reassuring that UCLA can also look to Shipp for an offensive boost, but worrisome that Thompson has been needing the freshmen to carry the team as of late. Thompson really hasn't had what you would call a great offensive game since UCLA played Cal, which was six games ago.  In the last five games, with Thompson sputtering, UCLA has gone 4-1. In those games, as you're watching, you keep telling yourself, though, "Just wait until Dijon gets on track, then they'll really put the game away." But he hasn't gotten on track.  UCLA very much will need the on-track Thompson if it hopes to take a serious run at the Pac-10 tournament and go deeper than past the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Thompson, though, to his credit, had a game-leading 12 rebounds and did play hard. He just wasn't feeling it offensively.

Oregon actually played better than expected, sporadically playing some decent defense, which is a huge departure for them.

UCLA, with its offense lacking all three of its leading scorers (Thompsons, Farmar and Afflalo) having good offensive games, relied again on its defense.  And in fact, UCLA only played decent defense compared to how it's been playing defense recently.  It did clamp down on the Ducks when it needed to, to stifle any potential runs that Oregon seemingly was about to mount. As soon as Oregon looked like they were about to get back in the game, UCLA would get some stops, and then Shipp would answer on the offensive end.

Also answering for UCLA was center Michael Fey, who finished with 15 points, ten rebounds, four blocks and three very nice assists.  Probably the most maligned player on the team, since he can be very frustrating in the post when he mis-catches the ball or misses an easy lay-up, Fey had a game that would make even the most ardent Fey bashers have to admit that the big guy is improving.  He's showing far more composure in the post with the ball, which has enabled him to both convert better and pass out of the post very effectively.  It was one of Fey's best all-around games as a Bruin.

UCLA, with the win, inadvertently missed out on a third place finish in the conference when Stanford, in complete Stanford fashion, upset Washington - after being beaten by Washington State Thursday night.  UCLA, as the conference's fourth place team, will face fifth-place Oregon State in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament Thursday at the Staples Center.

Even with the fourth-place finish, this team, as of now, has over-achieved on the season. Getting 18 wins and almost certainly a bid to the NCAA tournament was the benchmark for a successful season, given the talent and inexperience on the team, and the injuries it suffered, particularly the season-ending one to Cedric Bozeman before the first game.  It has struggled through some mediocre post play early on to having no power forward and having to use a 6-7, 200-pound wing as its four while also starting three freshmen. Taking it all in perspective, it's been a fairly amazing season, one in which many will now use as the footstool to jumping on the Ben Howland bandwagon.

Which is fine. Welcome aboard.

A solid performance in the Pac-10 tournament is probably the last expectation that really has to be met for this to be considered a successful season.  It doesn't even necessarily mean that UCLA would have to beat Oregon State in the first round, but just play tough.

Then, I know this might be contrary to all of those east-coast assertions that UCLA fans' expectations are unattainably high, but this team just playing tough in the NCAA tournament is also enough.  Yes, we all can get a little greedy, and start seeing visions of the Sweet 16, and even beyond.  And given the maturity of the three freshmen it's not that difficult to envision. But administering ourselves a little dose of reality you have to be satisfied with this team, the coaching staff and the season if the team continues to play tough in the next two weekends.

It will be the first winning season - and you could say successful season -- for either the football or basketball program in three years.  So, after so much suffering, and so many UCLA message board posters eating their own on the message boards, this basketball season is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

For this program, it then makes it very exciting to consider in a couple of years where exactly this tunnel lets you out...

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