While the final deficit against Southern Cal was 21 points, the truth is the game was never really that close. Although the Bruins played their third straight solid first half, during the game you were probably still worried that the Bruins could still suffer some missteps in the second half as they did against Washington State and Washington. In reality, it only took a few minutes of the second half to realize that USC wasn't going to get close to UCLA in this one. There was a point in the second half when the Bruins were up by 30, 60-30, and that score was indicative of the way both teams were playing.
It's interesting that in the game of basketball one or two moments can set the tone for the entire game. It doesn't even need to be a big play, but rather an attitude or a level of intensity. The Bruins displayed a couple of those moments early Wednesday night. Moment 1: Jordan Farmar hitting his first three of the game. He had elevation and good mechanics and he looked comfortable. If Farmar was going to be hitting his shot then USC was in for a long night. Moment 2: Ryan Hollins taking the first of three charges. His willingness to give up his body both energized his teammates and demoralized the Trojans. Regarding intensity and attitude, Hollins epitomized a clearly motivated team that was continually contesting shots, giving up their bodies in order to take charges and dive after loose balls. USC never came close to matching that intensity and when Coach Tim Floyd was whistled for a technical foul in the second half, you got the sense that it was more out of frustration at what was happening rather than his trying to fire his team up.
As a team, the defense the Bruins displayed was very good. Statistically, the Bruins held USC to less than 30% shooting from the floor, held them to 1 of 9 shooting from behind the arc, blocked 3 shots, out-rebounded the Trojans by 10 and caused 18 turnovers. The Bruins committed 19 turnovers but the timing of many USC turnovers was more significant than that of the Bruins. Take Darren Collison's steal and lay-up that happened at a time when you could argue that USC was still in the game. However, you could argue that the statistics don't explain how dominant the Bruin defense was at critical times. USC was stuck on 2 points for 8 minutes. They were forced into turnovers that were caused by the Bruins playing ball-denial defense, which was a departure from Coach Howland's base defense. Howland obviously saw something he thought he could exploit and it seemed to work. There were several instances when USC threw the ball out of bounds because their players were simply not on the same page. There were three successive turnovers in the first half where the Trojans threw a pass intended for a teammate coming back to the ball when in reality, the player was trying to cut back door because the Bruin defender was overplaying the ball. The Trojans never really made an adjustment that effectively countered this. It wasn't clear if the Trojans simply didn't "show up," but it was clear that the Bruins did, and were very intense on the defensive end of the floor.
As I said, there are moments that can change the complexion of the game. Defensively, this was very true of the Bruin defense for the first 12-14 minutes of the game. The Bruins did a good job of bumping cutters and chasing shooters, specifically Gabriel Pruitt and Lodrick Stewart. UCLA also did a good job of rotating on defense, as evidenced by the multiple charges that the Bruins took. UCLA also funneled any penetration by USC directly to help, which is also evidenced by the charging calls. In short, what all this meant was that by the end of the first half, USC's penetrators, whether it was Pruitt, Nick Young, Ryan Francis or Dwayne Shackelford, would get into the lane and then circle back out again, even when they weren't under pressure. This was a sure sign that the Bruin defense had effectively shut off a big part of the Trojans' game.
In terms of individuals, all of the Bruins who played significant minutes had relatively good games. Although Arron Afflalo had an off game on the offensive end, he harrassed Pruitt into a horrible game. Pruitt, who was averaging almost 20 points per game in conference, finished with only 4 points on 1-9 shooting, and he was O-fer from behind the arc. Pruitt was clearly frustrated by Afflalo's ability to fight through screens and muscle Pruitt to keep him out of the lane. Darren Collison was solid, if not spectacular. He had 5 assists, but also 3 turnovers. He shot relatively well, hitting a 3, but missed a couple of jumpers in the lane that he has to hit with some consistency to be effective. He was better on defense, bothering Francis and Shackelford into a combined 12 points and keeping Francis, who was hobbled, out of the lane when necessary.
Jordan Farmar had a strong game. He finished with 15 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds. More importantly, he set the tone for the game by hitting his first three shots, all 3s, when the Bruins essentially ran away and hid. He played much better defense than he has in the past; specifically reading and anticipating smartly several Trojan passes that Farmar stole, including a beautiful tip steal in the second half. Farmar did get beat for two transition hoops because of his slow rotation, and he did have 5 turnovers, but this was clearly one of his better games. As a leader I noticed a more subdued Farmar talking to teammates about what they needed to do, and I saw him mouth, "my bad" after several questionable plays on his part. Taking responsibility is something that Farmar needs to continue to learn to do in order to be a more effective leader.
Perhaps the most important player in this game was Ryan Hollins. Once again he brought a great deal of energy to the court and his hustle was infectious. He finished with 9 points and 3 rebounds, but it was his defense, which included taking several charges and blocking a shot that was really the individual story of the night. It can be frustrating to watch Hollins play a game like this and wonder why he doesn't play like that every game. But at least on this night Hollins held onto almost every pass, including a tough one around his ankles that he converted into a dunk, he rotated well, while he did get called for his obligatory illegal screen. If Hollins continues to give the kind of effort and results he has the past two games, it will greatly bolster UCLA's post play which, in fact, in general was solid Wednesday, which makes the Bruins difficult to beat. Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya and Hollins combined for 17 points, 10 rebounds, three charges taken and a blocked shot.
Finally, Luc Mbah a Moute scored 10 points, had 7 boards and two blocks, but more importantly was his shutting down of USC's leading scorer, Nick Young. Young finished with 8 points, but 5 were after the game was decided. Luc was clearly the better player on this night. He was smart enough to funnel Young to the middle when Young beat him off the dribble, but that didn't happen much.
There were some things that the Bruins still need to address. Although the defense was very good, the Bruins turned the ball over 19 times. Granted, many of those took place in the second half when the game was essentially over, but that is a number that good teams will exploit. UCLA also seemed to stagnate offensively in the second half, settling for desperation 3 attempts on more than one occasion. Finally, the Bruins need to communicate a little better on the boards. The Trojans were given several second chances at the hoop when one Bruins knocked a sure rebound away from another.
All in all, though, it was a good night for the Bruins. They played a sustained 40 minutes on the defensive end, and they found a bit more depth. Even the injury bug didn't hit, although Mbah a Moute did give us a bit of a scare when someone banged his foot. With the expected return of Cedric Bozeman soon, the Bruins will be in better shape to chase the PAC-10 crown. It will be interesting to see if the extra day of rest will translate into a sustained effort against West Virginia on Saturday.