At least, that's how it looked on paper. On the court, Dan, Matt, Billy and Jason were inconsistent throughout the season. Each vet would have a big game or two and then vanish. Plus, Matt, Billy and Jason all went downhill in productivity over the team's last 10 games just as Dan was putting together a strong streak. TJ started out strong, then went through a prolonged stretch where he more than struggled. Ced Bozeman got derailed early by knee surgery, came back and had a strong run as a playmaker, but shot the ball poorly and seemed to lose his confidence as a ballhandler as the season wound down. FR PG Ryan Walcott had some strong games, but also played out of control too many times. Dijon started out well, hit a wall, and then came back at the end. Andre got caught in a numbers game and just didn't see enough PT for anyone to know how well he could perform if given the minutes.
Lavin and his staff were inconsistent as well. They started out with a plan to press for 40 minutes and play man d, then backed off when the Ball State and Pepperdine games exposed the Bruins' lack of quickness outside and, some have suggested, a lack of heart and effort on the defensive end. The 1-4 offense enabled UCLA to get a lot of high percentage shots close to the basket and behind the arc in preseason, but broke down and led to too many turnovers as teams in the Pac-10 analyzed it and figured out how to defend it. So Lavin installed a 4 out, 1 in motion offense in February and the Bruins matched some good games with some truly awful ones as Matt, Billy and Jason didn't set the picks and show the triple-threat skills that players need to run a motion offense well. Then Lavin started playing his FR more and switching offenses and defenses in the middle of games, not a strategy designed to put players in a comfort zone for success.
The Bruins went 2-4 in their last 6 games, including a first round loss to Cal in the Pac-10 Tournament. They came into the Cincinnati game against a team that was 31-3 and everyone looked like they were on steroids. The Bearcats pummeled UCLA on the glass 25-15 in the first half, scored 8 offensive rebound baskets, had some guys (Leonard Stokes, Immanuel McElroy) get hot from 3 who normally don't get hot from 3, held Jason Kapono to 2 points and Matt Barnes to a doughnut, and led 47-37 after the first 20 minutes. The Bearcats' biggest lead was 13 points, their smallest (after the first three minutes) 7. Dan Gadzuric's 16 points and 6 rebounds and TJ Cummings' 7 points kept the Bruins within striking distance, but it really looked like men against boys out there. Lavin tried his second unit, he tried his zone, he tried his man d, he tried to deny Steve Logan the ball, he tried the motion, and he tried the 1-4: Nothing seemed to work.
In the second half, UCLA inexplicably grew up. The boys of the first half became men. Dan continued to go strong inside. Jason began nailing the Js and also scored posting up. Yes, folks, that's not a misprint. Matt took the ball inside or hit his teammates with precision passes. Billy hit from the corner and boarded. Ced and Ryan stopped turning it over and controlled the offensive flow of the game. They also tag-teamed Steve Logan into submission. Dijon was calm and collected. And everybody played defense and got up on the glass. The Bruins, who settled for too many 3s in the first half, began going inside at every opportunity.
The Bruins' zone became increasingly intense as the half wore on. As Cincinnati's outside shooting returned to normal, UCLA's players did a much better job of staying in front of their men on top. Dan didn't have to switch as much on defense, so he could stay under the basket to grab the defensive rebounds and alter shots. At the other end, the Bruins spread the floor with their motion and began isolating the Bearcats one on one. With the 6-4 McElroy on Jason, the Bruins either posted Kapono up or set picks for him up top to get him open for Js as the Cincinnati players began wearing down. Jason committed 4 fouls with 11 minutes left, but Lavin kept him in the game and Jason kept on scoring. The Bruins cut the lead to 6 several times, but couldn't seem to get over that hump.
So, when Cincy got a big steal and converted at the other end to make it 65-54, it looked like UCLA was done. But the men disagreed. Matt Barnes smoked a 3 and Dan got fouled underneath on the same play. The Bruins got the ball to Matt, who popped another 3. When Cincy missed a shot at the other end, Matt grabbed the rebound and hit Dan with the outlet pass. Big Dan threw down the thunder as UCLA closed it to 65-62. Two Steve Logan FTs made it 67-62 with just under 8 minutes to go.
The Bruins came out of the TV timeout and kept the pressure on as Jason and Matt just kept pouring it in. Lavin was no longer substituting: He was going with his first unit all the way: Dan, Matt, Jason, Billy and Ced. And Ced continued to control the floor. His defense on Logan kept the Bearcats' star from penetrating and Logan had trouble seeing and shooting over Ced's long arms and legs. The SR star was now the one turning it over. Cincy was the team double-clutching its shots and relying too much on the 3. Ced would bring the ball down, set up Dan inside or Matt outside. Matt would run 2-man with Jason and either get Jason the ball or take it inside off the dribble. And the Bruins inexorably closed the gap until they finally took the lead, 76-73, with two minutes to go. The Bearcats were able to hit some amazing shots and tie it at 80-80 with 25 seconds left, but UCLA couldn't hit its last two shots in regulation.
Both overtimes resembled the last 10 minutes of regulation: The Bruins were in control, even when they couldn't quite put Cincy away. The Bruins were the more composed team, and the more physical team. With Cincy so spread out by the Bruin motion, its vaunted defense seemed incapable of preventing UCLA from getting good shots whenever the Bruins were patient enough to look for them. With Cincy still crashing the boards, but with less success, the Bruins were running out on them with their big men and getting breaks at the other end. The Bearcats made it into the second OT the way they made it into the first OT, by hitting some Js with a spectacular degree of difficulty (mainly McElroy and Stokes again). The Bruins generally scored the old-fashioned way, short Js and long Js off of excellent passes, screens and plays. Cincy led 90-88 with 25 seconds left. The Bruins cleared out for Ced, who drove in on Logan and just banked in the short J over the 6-footer as if he was running a drill instead of taking the biggest shot of his life.
The Bruins continued running the same plays in the second half, jumped out 94-90 and finally looked like they were going to put it away when Matt made a great baseline move, but he missed the dunk. Cincy hit a 3 and then Ced went down with a slight ankle injury. Ryan replaced him, the Bruins came back on d and forced Cincy into another bad shot. The Bruins took a bad shot themselves, but Billy grabbed the offensive rebound, scored and drew the foul. The Bruins were now up 97-93 after Billy hit the FT, and Cincy seemed to totally panic with still another turnover (sure-handed Cincy made 17 gaffes for the game). Matt drew the foul at the other end and sank a FT. Cincy took another awful shot, Matt grabbed the rebound and Lavin called a timeout to get his "FT team" on the floor: Jason, Billy, Dijon, TJ and Ryan. Dan and Matt came back in for defense with every clock stoppage. Billy added a FT, the Bearcats turned it over again and Dijon hit the short J off a gorgeous drive to make it 101-93. The Bruins made their last 4 FTs to make the final margin 105-101as Cincy hit some long 3s at the end.
This was a total team victory for UCLA, with contributions from everyone. Dan finished with 26 points and 13 rebounds, committing just 2 fouls in 45 minutes. Jason scored 17 points in the final 30 minutes, playing the last 21 minutes with 4 fouls, and got 19 points (3-8 from 3) and 5 rebounds. Matt wound up with 17 points (all in the second half and the two OTs), 8 rebounds, 11 assists and 3 steals. Billy had 12 points and 4 rebounds. Dijon got double-figures again with 10 points. He also collected 4 rebounds and 2 assists. Ced had 8 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and zero turnovers in 39 minutes. Ryan backed him up with 4 points, 1 assist, 1 steal and zero turnovers in 22 minutes. Not bad for a couple of FR PGs. TJ had 7 points, 1 rebound and 2 monster blocks. Andre scored 2 points in limited action and Rico didn't score as he left the game late in the first half with a sprained knee.
UCLA shot 45.1% from the floor (close to 50% in the second half and OTs) and made 83.3% of its FTs. Cincy hit 43.8% of its shots and 88% of its FTs. UCLA was only 8-36 from 3, 28.6%. Cincy was 10-30 (33.3%), but only hit 3 of its last 14 attempts from behind the arc. The Bruins outrebounded the Bearcats 31-27 after the first half.
Leonard Stokes led the Bearcats with 39 points and 10 rebounds. Steve Logan finished with 18 points, 5 rebounds and 7 assists, but hit only 6-18 from the field and made 4 turnovers. Immanuel McElroy got 13 points and 8 rebounds. Big men Donald Little (9 points, 12 rebounds) and Jason Maxiell (7 points, 10 rebounds) were physical but unable to stop Dan from scoring inside and didn't do a good job of help defense when UCLA spread out the perimeter defenders in the second half.
Lavin didn't use any timeouts at the end of regulation or in the OTs (except to sub in his FT shooters and set up a play when he knew how Cincy intended to defend the inbounds pass with the clock winding down). Lavin has been criticized a lot this season for not using more timeouts. At the end of this game, it looked like the UCLA players didn't need any timeouts: They knew what they were doing. On the other hand, Cincinnati looked very confused, like they could have used a lot more timeouts. I guess that's where all those veterans and Ced Bozeman stand out.
The Bearcats fall to 31-4. The Bruins move to 21-11 and look forward to a date with Missouri (23-11) in San Jose on Thursday. Call it the "Battle of the Underachievers" or the "Battle of the Hair Gel" (it's too bad JaRon Rush isn't still in school or it could have been the "Battle of the Rushes"). Call it whatever you want…
I call it the Sweet 16…