UCLA Closes Strong, Beats Drexel

Jordan Farmar hits one free throw with 0.8 seconds left in the game and gives the Bruins the victory against Drexel in the NIT Tip-Off consolation game Friday. The Bruins are 4-1, but struggling...

UCLA (4-1) beat Drexel (2-2) 57-56 in the NIT consolation finals on Friday afternoon, coming back from a 4-point deficit in the final 3 and 1/2 minutes with some great defense and clutch free throws.

Now, ordinarily, coming back from a 4-point deficit wouldn't be considered much of an accomplishment, but in this type of game it was quite an accomplishment. Drexel shut down the Bruins' transition game, often ran the clock down to the final 5-10 seconds and got the ball inside for easy baskets and put backs for much of the game. Both teams were forced to control the ball for long periods of time and both teams made mistakes and turned the ball over, limiting their shot attempts. So, in that context, a 4-point lead seemed insurmountable at the 3:49 mark late in the second half.

That's when the Bruins' defense ramped up to a new level of intensity. For several minutes, before that, UCLA had been reduced to double-teaming the post on every possession and Drexel took advantage of that to get scores off of drives into the lane. But at the 3:35 mark, the Bruins figured out how to double the post and still switch fast enough to shut off the Dragons' guards and wings from taking it one on one. Drexel led 56-52 at that point, but failed to score for the rest of the game as the Bruins came up with key stop after stop.

On the offensive end, the Bruins continued to struggle to find open shots in their somewhat predictable half-court offense, but the Bruins finally set a good pick for Arron Afflalo and he came out and nailed the 3, bringing the Bruins within 2 points. With about a minute remaining, Afflalo came around a good pick by Lorenzo Mata and got fouled on a 3-point attempt. He made 2 of the 3 free throws to tie the game. Both teams clamped down on each other on the next two possessions and Drexel had the ball with 6.8 seconds. Great Bruin pressure d forced the Dragons to throw the ball away on the in-bounds pass and UCLA got it back with 5.7 seconds left.

They set some screens to free up Jordan Farmar to get the ball on the in-bounds play and Jordan just went one on one against his counterpart, Bashir Mason, who looks to be about 5-10, 4 inches shorter than Jordan. Jordan used his height to elevate over Mason as time ran out and Mason chopped down on Jordan's arm as he launched the shot with 0.8 seconds left. 2 free throws. Calm and collected, the Bruins' self-proclaimed leader promptly shot an air ball on the first free throw. Then he laughed. His second attempt hit the front of the rim, bounced of the backboard, rolled off the back of the rim and fell into the basket, nearly giving me three heart attacks in the process. The Bruins had the lead for the first time since the first 2 minutes of the second half and when Drexel's last desperation heave fell short the entire UCLA coaching staff (as well as UCLA's fans) no doubt heaved a huge sigh of relief.

The game started out with an 8-0 Drexel run and Drexel looked like they were in control of the game for about 8 minutes. Then, with the Dragons leading 18-9, UCLA tightened their defense, figured out a way to get some guys open in the half court and went on a 17-4 run to take a 26-22 lead. Both teams got hit by the turnover and bad-shot bug at that point, and UCLA ended the half up 30-26. Drexel started the second half with another 8-0 run and again seemed to be in control of the game until those final 4 minutes. The Bruins did close the lead to 3 at one point, but Drexel was up 6-8 points for much of the half. UCLA's defensive intensity waxed and waned throughout the game, but the Bruins had some really strong streaks on d, especially during that 17-4 run in the first half and the last 4 minutes.

The ESPN announcers kept saying how this would be a "bad loss" for UCLA to drop a game to Drexel University, but as Drexel proved against Duke on Wednesday they are a pretty good team, especially this early in the season, and the Bruins have some notable weaknesses which they will need to improve upon as the season wears on. The Dragons aren't a very good shooting team, but they control the tempo extremely well and manage to find ways of scoring inside and from mid-range. They were 1-10 from 3 against UCLA and only hit 42.9% of their shots overall, but they got some key offensive rebound buckets and found a variety of ways to beat the Bruins' defense. 6-8 post man Frank Elegar scored 13 points, but it seemed like 20. He had no problem at all with any of the UCLA post players, seriously abusing them inside with deep post position and basic moves. 6-10 Chaz Crawford got 3 offensive rebound baskets and finished with 8 points and 6 rebounds.

Ben Howland was so frustrated with the poor all around play of Ryan Hollins and Michael Fey that he wound up playing Lorenzo Mata 22 minutes. Lorenzo responded with 8 points, 8 rebounds, 1 block and 2 steals. He had as little luck playing man defense as Hollins and Fey, but he did a better job on the boards and when UCLA started double-teaming the post, Lorenzo showed that he's more mobile than Mike Fey and stronger and more aggressive than Ryan Hollins and he made a solid contribution on defense when the Bruins made a special effort to help him out.

Drexel's big guns are usually in the backcourt and at the wing. Bashir Mason (13 points) was only 4-12 from the field and has a really ugly shot, but all of his baskets came at key moments in the game and he did a good job of controlling the tempo of the game, keeping it slow so Drexel could keep it close. 6-5 Kellen Sanchez (14 points) repeatedly muscled past Cedric Bozeman to get short mid-range jumpers in the key; it was Ced's weakest defensive effort to date. 6-4 Dominick Mejia, who scored 25 against Duke, found out that Arron Afflalo plays defense a lot better than JJ Reddick. Mejia was 1-8 from the field and had a hard time getting his hands on the ball.

With UCLA getting only one fast break bucket all game, they were forced once again to rely on their still in progress half court game. By now, teams have scouted the Bruins and they've sort of figured it out. Either Jordan Farmar and Ced Bozeman will swing it around on the perimeter while Arron Aflalo runs through the lane and tries to come off a post pick, or else the UCLA post players will come up and set a high pick to let Jordan, Ced or Arron go one on one. That about does it right now, except for the occasional pass into the post, but the UCLA big men all have such poor hands that's always an adventure. If Jordan was shooting the ball better, that would help, but he another poor game, going 1-10 from the field, including 1-5 from 3 (5-21 for the season from 3) to finish with 6 points. He did make a number of sweet passes, especially after penetrating into the lane and had 8 assists, off-set somewhat by his 4 turnovers. Arron seems to be having little trouble shooting the ball. He was 4-8 from 3 in this game en route to a team-leading 18 points and only needed some good solid post picks to get free for scores. Given Arron's size and strength, I assume the Bruin coaches will add more plays for Arron in the offense as the season wears on. That's how it usually works.

Ced managed 10 points. He was the only Bruin player cutting to the basket when Jordan would get into the lane and break down the Drexel defense. Again, it seemed as if Ced could've done more damage if he was more aggressive taking the ball to the hole and maybe Howland needs to have a talk with him. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute played a solid game on offense, scoring 9 points and making some good passes, and he led the Bruins with 8 boards and 4 steals, but for the second straight game he made some bad turnovers and seemed a little confused at times at both ends. His post defense left much to be desired. At 6-7, lacking great bulk, and with only one year of U.S. high school basketball experience behind him, Luc will be vulnerable inside against experienced, taller post players with a patented inside move. The Pac-10 has maybe 3 guys like that, although I'm not looking forward to watching Luc guard Washington's Jamaal Williams. Luc's early season play has exceeded expectations, but the Bruins badly need Alfred Aboya to come back soon. Aboya's return to action could be as key to the Bruins' success in the Pac-10 as the return of Josh Shipp.

Mike Roll came in and made a key contribution, draining a pair of 3s, running the offense and playing solidly on defense. On the other hand, Darren Collison struggled, getting one assist against 2 turnovers and having trouble executing against the more experienced Mason.

As noted above, Lorenzo Mata had 8 points and 8 rebounds and it was probably the best game of his career. He got some offensive rebounds and actually rolled to the basket off a pick and was rewarded by a pass from Jordan for a slam dunk. Mata lacks good hands and a good understanding of the game, but he always works hard, which unfortunately can't be said for Ryan Hollins and Mike Fey. Those two combined for 0 points and 3 rebounds in 19 minutes and were truly awful, doing a bad job of setting picks on offense and rolling to the basket afterward and presenting no defensive obstacle inside at the other end of the court. The coaching staff must certainly be disappointed and perhaps a little mystified after the two made such a solid contribution Wednesday against Memphis. Obviously, the pace and nature of this game was much different than the game against Memphis, but it isn't obvious why the Drexel big men would be so dominant against UCLA's two frontline centers. The Pac-10 has some good big men and UCLA could struggle all season with its post game unless someone steps forward and gives them some consistent play.

So, the Bruins are 4-1 and they made a game of it in the second half against an enormously talented Memphis team. They haven't dominated anyone yet, and their weaknesses are evident. Until Jordan Farmar starts hitting his Js, Ced Bozeman gets more aggressive, the big men become a factor inside and the team comes up with more creative plays in the halfcourt offense, the Bruins are going to struggle to score against any good team which minimizes its turnovers. On defense, the Bruins have a hole in the middle and no matter how strong their outside defenders are, that's going to keep the Bruins back on their heels and further limit their chances for fast breaks and turnovers, which the coaching staff have identified as perhaps the key components to the UCLA offense this year.

Obviously, the Bruins are playing without 2 starters and that's quite a blow. They're probably not a legit top 25 team right now. Mata, Mbah A Moute, Collison and Roll are all young players who may show dramatic improvement by the time the Pac-10 season comes around. It's still important to remember that the team leaders, Farmar and Afflalo, are only sophomores. It's possible that a series of ankle injuries has affected Farmar more than anticipated and that could explain his inconsistent play so far. No doubt, defenses are looking out for him as well. Bozeman has played better than anyone anticipated, but he might be too passive for the Bruins to count on him as a third key weapon on offense. Most of the top teams have at least 3 guys who can put up big numbers on a given night. You need enough weapons to keep the defense from always focusing on your main guys. Duke has McRoberts to go with Reddick and Williams. Memphis has Williams to go with Washington and Carney. Josh Shipp, please come back.

Now the Bruins have teams like Albany, Coppin State, Wagner and Sacramento State coming up. They also play Nevada and Michigan, and those will be tough games, especially Michigan. But UCLA ought to rack up 9 or 10 wins in the preseason, setting them up for the NCAA Tournament and another 20-win season quite nicely. But if the Bruins want to finish in the top 3 of the Pac-10 and go anywhere in the Big Dance, they need to get back their injured warriors and correct some definite deficiencies, to the extent that's possible with their current personnel.

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