Bruins Show Guts, Get Glory

UCLA plays another excellent second half, riding hot Arron Afflalo, shows its toughness and beats Cal in overtime in Berkeley, clinching a tie for its first Pac-10 title since 1997...

Playing their best basketball of the season in the second half and overtime period, the UCLA Bruins once again shrugged off a sluggish first half to defeat the Cal Bears and improve their overall record to 23-6 and their Pac-10 Conference record to 13-4 by beating the Bears (17-9, 11-6) in Berkeley Thursday night. The Bruins are now in a position to win the Pac-10 title outright for the first time in 9 years by beating Stanford on Saturday.

In the first half, the Bruins tried to mimic Washington and played Leon Powe straight up, with almost disastrous results. Powe had 15 points at halftime. Alfred Aboya had 3 fouls, Ryan Hollins 2 fouls and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute 2 fouls, all against Powe. Cal ended the first half on an 11-0 run over the final 5:53 to take a dominating 31-20 lead into the intermission. Up until then, UCLA had managed to maintain pace with the Bears despite again getting hit by the turnover bug (8 in the first half) and poor shooting from the field (40% to the Bears' 56%). Cal decided to defend UCLA man-to-man rather than employ a zone, and with its tall frontline and a brace of fine guards in Ayinde Ubaka, Richard Midgley, Omar Wilkes and Nikola Knezevich, Cal seemed on the verge of overwhelming the Bruins by halftime. Six of Cal's final 11 points in the half came at the free throw line as the Bruins were frequently out of position on defense and were forced to foul repeatedly.

For the fourth consecutive game, the Bruins trailed at the half. For the third consecutive game, the Bruins both turned up their defensive intensity by a notch or two and stopped turning the ball over in the second half, running their offense with much greater efficiency as they came back with a vengeance. Arron Afflalo seemed to single-handedly take the Bruins and carry them on his back as he scored 16 points in the second half, including 3 threes, as UCLA started the half with a 7-0 run and then went on another 7-0 run between the 12:38 and 11:20 marks to take the lead for the first time since early in the first half. With the Bruins now doubling Powe whenever he got the ball down low, Cal relied on Ubaka to hit key 3s to keep the game close, but Cal's guards were also missing over and over again. With time running down, UCLA led 55-52 and had possession, but a wild shot by Aboya gave the ball back to Cal. Freshman forward Theo Robertson nailed a 3 from the corner with 29 seconds left to tie the game and send it into overtime as UCLA failed to score on its final possession.

In the overtime, Cal struck first with another 3 from Ubaka. But those were to be the last points that Cal would score in the game, as UCLA outscored the Bears 12-0 for the rest of the overtime period. Afflalo had another 3 and added 2 free throws, and Jordan Farmar, 1-9 from the field in regulation, scored on a dribble drive off a one-on-one isolation move against Midgley, then sank 4 free throws as Cal was forced to foul as the clock ticked away. UCLA's defense down the stretch was just superb as Cal was forced into one bad shot after another. Once again, UCLA proved to be the toughest team mentally and physically down the stretch drive, as its players made the right plays over and over, beat Cal on the boards and got to the loose balls first. With their head coach once again burning his timeouts early, as he has on a consistent basis all season long, the Bruins have become self-reliant and confident in their abilities to close out a game on their own, especially when they get the ball in the hands of Farmar or Afflalo.

Although Afflalo was the star for UCLA with 25 points and 5 rebounds (these are my stats, not the official stats), and Farmar had 8 points and 6 assists (against 4 turnovers), the rest of the team contributed to the victory as well. Darren Collison got 11 points and 2 assists and played perhaps his best game of the season, knocking down a 3, pushing the ball in transition and scoring off dribble drives into the lane, as well as contributing excellent defense throughout. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute added 5 points, 8 rebounds and 5 steals and did a great job of forming the double teams on Powe in the second half and OT. Alfred Aboya also contributed mightily to the defense on Powe (who scored only 5 points after halftime) and added 8 points on top of it, including 4 of 5 from the free throw line. Ryan Hollins added 3 points, 5 rebounds and a key second-half block. Ced Bozeman was sure and steady, getting 7 points, 2 rebounds and 2 assists and playing consistently good defense throughout the game. Ryan Wright and Mike Fey each grabbed a rebound.

For Cal, Powe finished with 20 points, but just 2 rebounds. He wasn't much of a factor after UCLA began double-teaming him in the second half. Ubaka had 12 points and 6 assists, but hit just 3-14 from the field. Midgley was limited to 6 points and Wilkes, who hurt the Bruins badly in L.A., failed to score against Bozeman. Devon Hardin grabbed 10 rebounds, but was held to just 4 points, compared to the 10 he scored in L.A., and Rod Benson also was limited to 4 points after scoring 8 against UCLA in L.A. To be fair, Benson wasn't playing at 100%, but the Bruins' interior defense was significantly improved from the last time these two teams played, owing mainly to the maturity of Mbah A Moute and Aboya, the improvement of Hollins and the excellent rotation in the second half and OT period by the UCLA guards. Theo Robertson had 5 points and 4 rebounds and Nikola Knezevich had 5 points for Cal.

The Bruins have clearly established themselves as a second-half team this season. Even taking into account the losses to Memphis and West Virginia, their depth and conditioning are proving superior to their opponents, except for the shortfall in Seattle. As the game goes on, Ben Howland's Bruins have proven themselves able to adjust to offenses and defenses, cutting down on their own mistakes while forcing the other team into making them on an increasing basis. Cal shot just 33.3% from the floor in the second half and just 1-9 in overtime, missing its last 8 shots. Meanwhile, UCLA was 2-3 from the field and 7-8 from the free-throw line in the overtime. Ultimately, the Bruins' poise, tenacity and effort were too much for Cal. Those same qualities should drive UCLA to the Pac-10 title in Palo Alto on Saturday.

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