Season Ends Bittersweetly, 78-66

While the Bruins didn't go out on a great note, losing to a physical Texas Tech team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday, there was certainly some sweet to go along with the bitterness of the loss...

UCLA's 2004-2005 season ended Thursday on a bittersweet note when the Bruins lost to Texas Tech in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 78-66.

It was bitter since UCLA, obviously, lost the game, and was out-played by a bigger, stronger opponent.

It was sweet since UCLA hung with the Red Raiders for much of the game, the first NCAA tournament game UCLA had played in three years. While watching the game sometimes you'd lapse into greed, when the Bruins drew to within three or four points in the second half, and you'd start to see visions of an Elite Eight run in your mind.

Bitter: UCLA's defense was poor, getting beaten up and confused throughout the game by Texas Tech's fierce screening. Tech shot 61% from the field, mostly because they had so many lay-ups due to great execution of their offense. UCLA's freshmen just weren't strong, aggressive or experienced enough to be able to overcome Bobby Knight's physical offensive gameplan. Compared to Tech's guards, Jordan Farmar looked like a wisp of a basketball player. It appeared that, after a season where the freshman point guard was the target of much physical play from opponents in efforts to wear him down, he looked worn down while facing the most physical team he had yet faced. He looked like a pinball bouncing from screen to screen, and then appeared at times to lose energy in trying to find his man.

Sweet: Jordan Farmar is a very talented player who is just 18 years old. We've told you since he first committed to UCLA that the aspects of his game that needed to improve were his defense and strength, and it's proven to be very true in his first collegiate season. But if Farmar were 200 pounds and as strong as Stanford's Chris Hernandez, we'd be recommending you take many pictures of him in a UCLA uniform since you wouldn't be seeing it for long. If Farmar were already strong and physical, he'd be going to the NBA fairly quickly. So while watching this game you might have been lamenting that Farmar wasn't big or strong enough to match up against Texas Tech's guards, you should have also been thankful – since those flaws will keep him in college and playing for UCLA longer.

Bitter: As UCLA's defense was breaking down, its offense followed suit. When the Bruins were finding themselves unable to contain Texas Tech offensively, UCLA started to get desperate offensively. A big turning point was with about 5:40 left to go in the game and UCLA still close, down just 66-59. Farmar, susceptible to poor freshmen decisions in the environment of his first NCAA tournament game, took a hurried, 25-foot three-pointer that wasn't close. That keyed a Red Raider run that put the game away.

Sweet: Josh Shipp didn't seem that susceptible to the first-NCAA-game pressures, and was truly the spark that kept UCLA in the game in the first half. Shipp had 9 points and four big rebounds in the first half, and was the main force in bringing UCLA back from a disastrous beginning, falling behind 8-0 to start the game. At that point you were wondering if UCLA could ever manage to score. But Shipp hit a big three-pointer, and then aggressively drove to the basket on a few possessions and brought UCLA back to even with Tech, 27-27. Shipp finished with 13 and 7 for the game, and did many little things that didn't show up in the box score, like some timely helpside defense to cause a turnover.

Bitter: Texas Tech wasn't exactly flawless. In fact, they turned the ball over seemingly more times than the 14 in the stat sheet, and missed fairly easy shots, consistently giving UCLA a chance to jump back into the game. UCLA, though, couldn't take advantage. In one sequence with about 10 minutes left, down by five, UCLA had three successive possessions as a result of Tech blowing its offensive opportunities. But UCLA couldn't convert, taking poor shots or turning the ball over in all three possessions.

Sweet: While Tech's senior guard, Ronald Ross, was schooling UCLA's freshmen to the tune of 28 points, and shutting them down on the defensive end, it had to be registering with UCLA's freshmen that they have a long ways to go, and plenty of time to get there. I'm sure the freshmen, when they put together some wins this season, started believing they were pretty good, until they go up against Ross and Tech's lead guard Jarrius Jackson, and get humbled. Humblings are good, and this could be considered a solid humbling. Farmar finished with a career-low 3 points, shooting 1-8 from the field, and didn't score until he made a three-pointer with about 8 minutes left in the game, while also committing 4 turnovers and getting out-muscled defensively. Arron Afflalo, who has been the guy who gets the defensive assignment against the opposition's best offensive perimeter player, got the assignment against Ross, and those 28 points had to be humbling. Afflalo also scored just 7 points and didn't get a rebound.

But again, humblings are good. The best and most efficacious humbling in recent Bruin history was in 1994, when the O'Bannon brothers, Tyus Edney and George Zidek were upset by Tulsa in the first round of the NCAA tournament, 112-102. Ed O'Bannon always cited that loss, where Tulsa whupped ‘em, as one of the biggest motivations he had to come back focused and prepared for the 1994-1995 season, when UCLA won its 11th national championship. Maybe UCLA can get Ross, Jackson and company to come to the pick-up games in the UCLA Mens' Gym this summer to play the young Bruins and keep them humble and hungry.

Bitter: As we said in the preview, Texas Tech was a bad matchup for the Bruins, but they do have vulnerability inside. An opposing team with a strong inside presence, particularly a strong offensive inside presence, would have a good chance with Tech. But, alas, UCLA's inside guys proved not up to the task. Both Michael Fey and Ryan Hollins had 8 points each, and only six rebounds between the two of them (Fey only getting one in 17 minutes of play). There were a few times when both Fey and Hollins had been dumped the ball inside but couldn't finish. Perhaps the most damaging was a missed dunk by Fey toward the end of the first half, and then Fey missing both free throws after he was fouled. On the replay, the dunk looked entirely do-able, too. And it was a critical stretch; at the time, UCLA was down by four, 33-29, and converting that three-point play would have been huge. Tech was in the midst of a mini-, 10-4 run and those three points might have stemmed it.

Sweet: While Mike Fey might never been all Pac-10, he has shown improvement this season and could next year, as a senior, be enough for UCLA to get that low-post presence it needs to be successful offensively. Fey has gone from averaging 6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game a season ago to 8.6 and 5.0 this season. You'd have to think that he'll continue to improve and hopefully be at least that incrementally better next season. While he didn't look good against Tech, consider how much better he was this season than last. While Ryan Hollins' stats went down from last year, because of reduced playing time, he also has a chance to come back next season and provide UCLA some key elements. In this game, he was the option UCLA needed since Tech's big men step out on the perimeter.

Senior Dijon Thompson.
Bittersweet: When UCLA's senior, Dijon Thompson, stepped to the free-throw line with 1:13 to go in the game, with UCLA down 76-64, there was so much emotion evident on his face. You could see he tragically still held out hope they could win, and hadn't given up, even at that point. You could see the sadness from the creeping realization that his career at UCLA was a minute away from ending. All of the frustration over the lost Lavin years, and the inner fortitude it took to come back for his senior season and play with toughness and heart was seen in his eyes. If Thompson hadn't won you over during this season, that moment had to do it.

The game against Texas Tech wasn't a great one for this UCLA team, and didn't reflect some of the best moments of this season. You might superficially conclude it left a slightly bitter taste in your mouth for the off-season. But really, for this team, how it over-achieved this season, the NCAA tournament was frosting on the cake, and the frosting really was sweet since it signaled the return of the UCLA basketball program to respectability.

And since it was all frosting, really, it's difficult to foresee what would be better for the program down the line – losing in the humbling manner it did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, or advancing beyond expectation to, say, the Sweet 16. What would be better? Getting sent a pretty clear message by Texas Tech that you're not big or strong or experienced enough and losing, or getting a false sense of yourself and winning?

If the freshmen and the returning players have some bitter taste during the entire off-season you can only conclude that losing this game, in the manner UCLA did, might serve more of a purpose for UCLA's basketball program than if they had won. The game, ulitmately, made you come away thinking how particularly sweet it will be to see a humbled and hungry (and considerably bigger physically) group of Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Josh Shipp next year.

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