It was bound to happen. The Bruins have suffered too many injuries to expect that they would be able to step up and successfully answer all challenges. UCLA had a solid game plan and executed it well for the majority of the game but, simply put, the Bruins ran out of gas.
The Bruins started the game with basically a 7-man rotation, but towards the end of the 1st half, that rotation effectively dropped to 6 when freshman post Alfred Aboya sprained his knee, the same knee that Aboya had surgery on earlier in the season. While the injury didn't look significant, with Aboya running on the sideline as Dr. Finerman watched him and he seemed to be fine, Aboya never returned. Losing Aboya's play and minutes was significant, as the Bruins clearly tired at the end of the game.
One of the questions before the game was which Bruin team would show up, the one from Thursday night's victory over Washington State, or the one that fans have seen from the past two Saturdays. The quick answer is that the Bruins played a solid, focused game, and the loss cannot be pinned on a lack of focus – but rather, a lack of a bench. Although Janou Rubin played some in the first half, making a couple of nice passes and a solid finish on a break, the only real substitute for the guards and wings was Darren Collison. There were several times in the 2nd half when Luc Mbah a Moute needed a break and Coach Howland had to play freshman Ryan Wright and senior Ryan Hollins on the floor together. Hollins, as you may remember, was seeing his first action in several weeks. As for the post depth, Hollins became the only legitimate bench help for Wright and Mbah a Moute once Aboya left the game. Senior Michael Fey saw about 2 minutes of action, but it was pretty clear he wasn't game-ready, and Fey doesn't have Hollins' athleticism, which at least let Hollins give some good defensive minutes. In fact, considering his period of inactivity, Hollins actually did a decent job. Sure, he was called for a blatant moving screen, and he still has difficulty reigning in post entry passes, but he pulled down several important rebounds, rotated adequately on defense and provided some energy and a bit of a spark. For example, the loose ball he ran down in the first half showed that Hollins was going to at least bring a good effort.
If you had said before the game that UCLA would hold Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones to less than 25 points combined, you would have thought the Bruins would win the game. But other Huskies stepped up. Jamaal Williams had a solid offensive game and became much more of a force in the second half when the Bruins couldn't double-down as much on the posts because Washington was beginning to find the range outside. Jon Brockman also had a solid game, especially on the offensive end in the 2nd half, when his size and strength gave the Bruins a lot of trouble. When Brockman stepped out and hit two 18 footers, you knew that the Bruins were in trouble.
Conversely, if you had said before the game that Jordan Farmar and Arron Afflalo would be held to a combined 19 points, and shoot 7-for-22, you would have thought the Bruins would get beaten badly. And if you had said that Farmar actually would play one of the worst halves of his career you would have been completely convinced of it. Farmar played fairly well in the first half, with 8 assists in the first 20 minutes, finding his teammates under the basket for easy looks that kept UCLA's halfcourt offense humming, and he did end the game with 12 assists, a career high. In the first half, Farmar was clearly the best player on the floor. He controlled tempo and was constantly trying to help his teammates. Farmar, however, then in the second half, didn't play well. He suffered a cut on his shooting hand late in the first half, and that might explain why his shooting was off. In fact, unless he was getting to the basket, Farmar wasn't really looking to shoot outside until late in the game. But also, in the second half, Farmar had some defensive lapses that allowed Washington's to convert some big possessions during critical sequences. A few times Farmar also looked to score when there were teammates open – particularly Mike Roll. Now, in no way could you place the blame of this loss on Farmar, but when your point guard and team leader has such a letdown in the second half it's not hard to imagine that a talented team like Washington is going to climb back into the game. Farmar is, yes, hindered by the still sprained ankle (and it was obvious that Washington believed it, too, when they actually had Brockman guarding Farmar for a while and Farmar couldn't get around him). And it did appear that the cut on his hand might have kept him from shooting the ball well. But if UCLA is going to do anything this season, much of it will depend on how Farmar steps up the rest of the season.
Afflalo played a very good defensive game, basically outplaying the man he was guarding, Brandon Roy, who is Washington's best player. But you could tell that it took a lot out of him. Couple that with the fact that Afflalo was getting bumped on virtually every UCLA possession, whether he had the ball or not, and it is easy to see why he looked fatigued in the second half. Afflalo simply had no legs left in the last 3 or so minutes, and he missed three of his last four shots from the outside, all short, which is a good indication of tired legs.
While many have bemoaned the loss of Josh Shipp, perhaps the true biggest loss is Cedric Bozeman and his defense. Without Bozeman, Afflalo is UCLA's one good perimeter defender, and he has to single-handedly every game shut down the opponent's best offensive player. Without Bozeman able to take some of that burden, it's obviously starting to wear down Afflalo and affect him on the offensive side.
It was good to see, though, that other Bruins stepped up in this game. Freshman Mike Roll had a career day, scoring 17 points, including 5 threes and generally taking care of the ball (one turnover) and playing solid defense. Roll, beyond being UCLA's big outside shooting weapon, is also one of UCLA's best passers. Mbah a Moute had an inspired game on the boards, almost single-handedly holding the Huskies to one shot for much of the first half. And he, along with Wright, displayed good hands on several passes from Farmar and Roll. If there was an area that the Bruins really missed Aboya, it was on offense. His replacements, Hollins and Fey, both missed relatively easy post entry passes, ones that you'd have to think that Aboya would have caught. Fey's drop was especially grievous as he simply looked unready for the pass. That seems to be the biggest difference in the "hands" of the seniors compared to the freshmen and Lorenzo Mata. The younger players have their hands up expecting a pass, perhaps due to just a better overall feel for the game than the seniors. And of course, not having Aboya's minutes or help on the boards hurt, too. Neither Hollins nor Fey can rebound as well as Aboya, and neither is the athlete that Aboya is.
The game plan was a good one. Howland had UCLA controlling tempo for much of the game, using the shot clock and forcing Washington into defensive lapses. The Bruins were given many good looks at the basket in both halves, but especially the first, when Washington looked like a team that simply expected to win. On defense, the Bruins were going to double the Washington bigs and Brandon Roy anytime they got the ball inside. In the first half it worked, with Washington going 1-11 from beyond the arc. But in the second half, Ryan Appleby hit three 3-point baskets that forced the Bruins to double-down less often. When that happened, both Williams and Brockman began to have their way inside. The Bruins also held their own on the boards against the statistically best rebounding team in the conference.
Washington never really went on a run, until the Bruins went up 60-52. Then the Huskies put together a 12-0 run and it was at this time you could tell the Bruins were running on fumes. UCLA simply didn't have the finishing ability in their legs to make the shots when the game was on the line. Until that time, Washington simply whittled away at the Bruin 40-28 halftime lead by taking advantage of UCLA's personnel deficiencies on the defensive end. You have to hand it to Washington's coach, Lorenzo Romar, who made some good adjustments both offensively and defensively in the second half. Romar's defensive adjustment took away Roll's outside shooting, with the defender shadowing Roll then giving no help on other players. And the Bruins struggled. After the 40-point first half, the Bruins could manage only 25 in the second. Some of that had to do with a better defensive effort by the Huskies in the 2nd half, but some of it was certainly attributable to the fatigue that set in. Shots that the Bruins made in the first half were coming up short in the 2nd. To add to this, Darren Collison missed two successive pull-up jumpers with about 6:30 left, shots he has been consistently hitting, and Washington scored on both successive possessions after retrieving the rebound.
There are many plays that one could look at as a turning point in this game. But with a game that was so close, you really need to look at the flow of the game. Washington simply wore down UCLA. Sure, the missed goaltending call on Collison's shot at the end of the 1st half, the traveling call on Mbah a Moute, and other calls were big, but if the Bruins weren't so tired, it wouldn't have come down to that.
The Bruins are going to have to expect to see the same kind of game plan from future opponents that Washington showed in the 2nd half. That is, bump and hit the Bruins as much as possible. Be physical with them. Wear them down. Now, the Huskies did this with a full line-up and they are one of the deeper teams in the country. And they still only won by four. They're also a senior-laden team that you could see wasn't going to get down just because they had fallen behind by 15.
Hopefully Aboya's injury won't keep him out of Wednesday's game with USC, because it really is a big game, and a winnable game. But you can probably expect, with UCLA's injuries starting to now visibly catch up with them, that every game is going to be a dogfight, and if nothing else, it will give the Bruins an opportunity to prove their mental and emotional, not to mention physical, fortitude.