Even though the Bruins were the dominant team for the majority of the game, a quick eight-minute meltdown almost turned a certain victory into defeat. The Bruins survived, 63-61, but they may have lost another key player in the process.
The Washington State game was probably the 2005-2006 version of the Bruins in a microcosm; when focused, the Bruins are a difficult team to beat. When they aren't focused, they can be beat by any other D-1 team outside of Savannah State. For about thirty minutes, the Bruins played possibly their best defense of the year. They held Wazzu's hot-shooting Josh Akognon to zero first-half points, made post Robbie Cowgill a spectator and generally forced the Cougars to take contested shots on virtually every possession. The Bruin game plan was pretty simple and pretty effective. The Bruins were looking to hedge their posts on high ball screens with at least two Bruins rotating down from the weak side to cut off the inevitable pass that came off the screen. UCLA blocked numerous Cougar shots and forced what looked like easy baskets into tough, contested fall-away jumpers or difficult lay-ups. If nothing else, the first half showed how truly athletic this Bruin team can be. It helped that Wazzu's outside shooters, particularly Akognon, weren't very aggressive in looking for their shot in the first half. Finally, it helped that the Bruins were limiting the Cougars to one shot on virtually every possession. You could see the Cougars start pressing offensively as they realized that they couldn't get anything out of their half-court offense.
At the same time the Bruin offense started humming relatively well. For about the first 6-8 minutes, the Bruins looked as offensively challenged as the Cougars. But if you watched closely, you would be able to tell that it was a situation of comparing apples and oranges. While the offensive problems the Cougars had were a result of tight and quick defense, the Bruin problems were a result of their pressing, (how many air balls did the Bruins throw up in the first few minutes?), and a lack of ball rotation. As soon as the Bruins began moving the ball more quickly, they were able to get into the lane and either make shots or dish for lay-ups. It was during this time that Arron Afflalo began to find his stroke and hit a couple of outside shots. Mike Roll also contributed at this time, hitting one 3 and another just on the line. For those concerned with the loss of Josh Shipp, it was a nice surprise to see Roll finish in double figures.
The Bruins worked to increase their 31-17 halftime lead to a 54-37 lead with more than 10 minutes gone in the 2nd half. Then the wheels fell off. While the Bruins lost their defensive focus during this time, the key to the problems was, in reality, that Akognon finally became aggressive with his shot and started making them from everywhere. After the scoreless first half, Akognon put up 25 in the second half. You could almost see that his confidence went into overdrive when he hit his first 3 from about 25 feet at the top of the key. Shortly after that shot a timeout was called and when play resumed, the Cougars had changed their offensive philosophy from the hard motion to simply having four players work to set screens to loosen Akognon so he could get his shot off. At first Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo did a decent job of fighting through the screens, but finally Farmar got a bit lazy on one and Akognon buried another 3. By that time it didn't matter who was guarding him, you knew that if Akognon got the ball, a shot was forthcoming. And he hit almost all of them. He made step-backs; he made off angle shots; he got fouled on a 3 and made the free throws. Before anyone starts jumping off the proverbial ledge, understand that the way Akognon shot last night was just one of those things. He couldn't miss. When a player gets into a zone like that, it's difficult to defend a team because as you gravitate towards stopping that player, you tend to forget your other responsibilities. Coach Howland called a time out. There was a T.V. time out. But nothing could stop Akognon. The Bruins started overplaying him and doubling him, but he was then able to find open bodies under the basket for easy lay-ups and dunks. Suddenly, the Bruins were up by only one and every Bruin fan had to be screaming at the T.V., wondering what the heck Darren Collison was doing going to the hoop with 23 seconds left. Thank goodness he made the shot. Yes, the Bruin defense broke down terribly in the last few minutes, but it was more the result of trying to keep Akognon, who was in a zone, from beating them. Also, it seemed that UCLA was a bit stunned after Lorenzo Mata collided with Jordan Farmar with three minutes left and up by 11 points. Farmar had stolen the ball and missed the contested lay-up, then ran into a hard-charging, hustling Mata. The ball went the other way and, of course, Akognon was there to make a three-pointer. UCLA came away from the sequence, instead of up 13, only up 8 and with its starting center writhing in pain on the bench with a knee injury.
Obviously the struggles the Bruins had at the charity stripe contributed to the problems at the end of the game. The Bruins shot 61% for the game from the line, and missed some critical ones, If the Bruins don't improve their free throw shooting, expect them lose games because of this deficiency. And it's not just the usual suspects of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Ryan Wright who were missing free throws. Arron Afflalo missed three free throws, including one at the end.
In terms of individual play, the Bruins all basically played solid games. Farmar looked as good as he has in two weeks, both being able to elevate better on his shot and play better defense. It appeared that Farmar did a much better job than usual of fighting through screens and keeping his man from the hoop. During the Wazzu run in the 2nd half, however, Farmar appeared to revert to his old ways of being a bit slow on rotations and losing track of the ball on the weak side. Arron Afflalo had a generally strong game, both getting his shot to fall at critical times and getting to the basket. Afflalo has definitely learned to become more of a scorer as the season has progressed. He took some difficult, highly-contested shots in the beginning of the game, but settled down and let the game come to him more as the game went on. Towards the end of the game, with about 2 minutes left, Afflalo was demanding the ball to get the Bruins needed points. And he was lucky, too -- hen he made a put-back of his own miss with about 1:40 left that stemmed the bleeding for a bit and gave the Bruins a bit more confidence. On the defensive end, however, Afflalo looked slower than usual. He let Kyle Weaver have a couple of easy baseline jumpers that Afflalo could have easily contested, and he appeared panicky at the end of the game when he was assigned Akognon. Nothing epitomized this more than the foul by Afflalo that led to Akognon getting his points from the line. The fould was a heady play considering the way Akognon was shooting, but being faked out so poorly, thus leading to a foul was a mistake. Generally, Afflalo looked fatigued, and it showed late in the game trying to keep track of Akognon.
Mike Roll did a nice job in his first starting assignment, hitting some shots and generally playing solid defense. More importantly, he looked like he had more confidence. When he took his last 3 attempt with about 3:30 left, it was a confident stroke that had the look of someone who wanted the ball. True, he missed, but there was a bit more aggressive play from Roll than we've seen.
Darren Collison had a sub-par game. The biggest problem that DC had was constantly over-penetrating. He definitely caused match-up problems for the Cougars, but he had numerous turnovers and took poor shots as he let himself get too deep into the Cougars' collapsing defense. He should have recognized that he had the short pull-up jumper available all night. Still it was curious that Collison was on the bench for some significant minutes during Wazzu's big run. If nothing else, his quickness may have bothered Akognon.
The post players did an admirable job. They rebounded well and rotated well on defense. Mbah a Moute looked to have more shot opportunities, which it was thought he'd have with Shipp out. He, as well as Alfred Aboya, Ryan Wright and Lorenzo Mata, all were able to double down effectively, and Mata especially became a defensive force, basically taking away Wazzu's straight up inside game with two tremendous stuffs/steals. It is very unfortunate that on a great hustle play, Mata, who has become the Bruins' best post player, was hurt.
The Bruins, again, proved that focus is a major component of their game. It was questionable whether they had enough talent to win on a given off night, but now, with all the injuries, they certainly don't. They stayed focused for about 30 minutes, and it got them a sizable lead against a well-coached, fairly talented team. When the Bruins lost focus, the game was almost lost. When Kyle Weaver came up short on the final lay-up attempt, it was probably a just ending. The Bruins were clearly the better team, but the game has to serve as a warning. UCLA must play a focused 40 minutes or they will lose to even mediocre competition.
And with the Bruins seemingly unfocused in their first two Saturday PAC-10 games, the Huskies will be a huge test on Saturday.