Going into the game, this looked to be UCLA's toughest game of the tournament. Cal beat UCLA for 1 and ½ games during the regular season, and in Leon Powe they have the one player in the Pac-10 who can alter defenses single-handedly. After getting 22 points and 20 rebounds against USC and 41 points against Oregon earlier in the tournament, the biggest question going into today's game was whether the Bruins would be forced to double team Powe or play him straight up.
Armed with Luc Richard Mbah A Moute, arguably the best defensive forward in the Pac-10 (Bobby Jones of Washington could give me an argument), Head Coach Ben Howland chose to guard Powe straight up for most of the first half. As a result, at the start of the game UCLA was able to defend the entire Bears' team straight up and shut down Ayinde Ubaka, Richard Midgley, Omar Wilkes and Devon Hardin. With UCLA hot from the field, the Bruins were able to jump out to a 21-10 lead at the 10:32 mark. Cal was mainly using a man defense against the Bruins, only using a zone sporadically, and the Bruins' motion and screen offense was able to generate a series of high-percentage shots. Cal's best offensive weapon, meanwhile, was the offensive rebound, as Hardin, Powe and Theo Robertson all got put backs for scores.
Although the Bruins were racking up fouls up front (Ryan Hollins got his 2nd foul at the 9:18 mark and Alfred Aboya got his 3rd foul at the 8:44 mark), the Bruins continued to stymie the Bears on defense while hitting their own shots (the Bruins made 12 of their first 16 shots). By the 5:26 mark of the first half, UCLA had built a 30-14 lead and appeared to be ready to put Cal away. But over the next 5 minutes, the Cal defense tightened up, using their big men to jam the lane, denying the paint to the Bruins, who were forced to resort to jacking up a series of pressured 3s. At the other end of the floor, Ubaka heated up from the outside, scoring 7 quick points, while Powe began finding the basket easier to attack as more Bruins fell by the foul wayside (Mbah A Moute was tagged for his 2nd foul at the 2:18 mark). As a result Cal went on a 15-2 run over the final 5 minutes to end the half down by just 3 points, 32-29. Powe had 11 points and 5 rebounds at the half and Hardin had 4 points and 5 rebounds. Jordan Farmar led the Bruins with 8 points, while Arron Afflalo contributed 7 points and 4 assists and Ryan Hollins had 6.
In the second half, UCLA made a concerted effort to attack the big backline of the Bears, going inside to Hollins and Aboya and also pushing the ball in transition, unfamiliar territory for the Bruins. On the defensive end, UCLA continued its single coverage of Powe, trying the taller Hollins on him and moving Mbah A Moute to Hardin. Hollins' height clearly bothered Powe, but Hollins also lacked the weight to keep Powe away from the basket and was fighting to stay out of foul trouble at the same time, a difficult situation for the UCLA center. Both Hollins and Mbah A Moute had picked up their 3rd foul trying to stop Powe by the 16:18 mark of the second half and Howland was forced to bring Lorenzo Mata into the game for prolonged duty. Mata did a superior job of bodying up to Powe while he was out there and UCLA was able to push its lead back up to 8, 47-39, at the 11:39 TV timeout, with 3 of UCLA's baskets coming off transition buckets, including a 3-point play by Bozeman. Hollins and Mbah A Moute re-entered the game and UCLA was ready to turn its defense up still another notch. With the Bears finding it difficult to get the ball to Powe or get any open looks from 3, UCLA relentlessly built its lead even further.
Afflalo and Bozeman attacked the Bears off the dribble as Afflalo hit a short J, then penetrated again and hit Hollins with a beautiful pass for a dunk, and then Bozeman penetrated himself and got another 3-point play. In their grinding fashion, UCLA had pushed its lead back up to 52-41 by the 7:46 TV timeout. Ubaka, Midgley, Wilkes, Robertson and Nikola Knezevich were unable to shake their defenders to get off any open looks, and Powe had trouble seeing the ball himself as the Bruins finally began to double him consistently inside.
As everyone knows, when the Bruins have a lead past the 10 minute mark of the second half, it becomes virtually impossible for an opponent to stage a comeback because UCLA uses up so much clock with each offensive possession, while also forcing the other team to burn clock trying to find a way to score against UCLA's ever-tightening defense. This game was no different, as the Bruins seemed to burn 35 seconds with each possession and then get a good shot at the end of it. With less than 6 minutes to play, Farmar buried 3-pointers on successive possessions to give UCLA its biggest lead of the game, 60-43, at the 4:25 mark. That effectively ended the game, as Cal simply had no means of scoring so many points with the Bruins being so successful at eroding the clock. With Powe totally stymied inside down the stretch, Ubaka scored 11 points in the last 6 minutes, but it was too little, too late. UCLA maintained its tough defensive pressure on Cal until the very end and strangled the Bears as they have so many other opponents this season. As the game wore down, the Bears resorted to fouling the Bruins, who knocked down their free throws. Howland cleared his bench with 48 seconds remaining and the Bruins up 69-52 and Janou Rubin made 2 foul shots to create the final score.
Farmar led the Bruins with 19 points, including 5 threes, and 2 steals, although he failed to register an assist and made 4 turnovers and is now just 6 miscues away from tying Earl Watson's all-time single season turnover record (again, these are my stats, not the official stats). Hollins had another impressive game at both ends, finishing with 12 points and 4 rebounds. Cedric Bozeman played one of his best games of the season, if not his career, combining his excellent defense on Wilkes and Robertson with 13 points and 3 assists, although he did make 3 turnovers himself. Afflalo turned playmaker today, finishing with 7 assists to go with his 9 points, 4 steals and 3 rebounds. Mbah A Moute again finished in double figures, scoring 10 points to go with his 4 rebounds. Darren Collison contributed 3 assists and 2 rebounds, along with excellent defense on Midgley, Mike Roll got 2 points, 2 rebounds and an assist, Alfred Aboya also scored 2 points and had a rebound, Lo Mata had 2 points and rebound and looks ready to contribute in crunch time during the NCAA Tournament and Rubin had those final 2 points.
For Cal, Powe managed just 6 points and 4 rebounds in the second half to finish with 17 points and 9 rebounds total. Ubaka got 18 points, most of them when the game was already over, but he also handed out 4 assists and played a pretty solid game with Afflalo shading him for much of the game. Hardin had 8 points and 7 rebounds, Midgley managed just 3 points and Wilkes only scored 2. Robertson also scored 2 points and grabbed 3 rebounds and Rod Benson added 2 points and 3 rebounds of his own.
For the game, the Bruins shot 53.1% from the floor, compared to 39.6% for Cal and that sums up the game: UCLA's offense generated many high-percentage shots and UCLA's defense denied the same to Cal. UCLA shot 41.2% from 3 and 80% from the foul line. The Bears out-rebounded the Bruins, but the margin wasn't that large, 24-21, not counting team rebounds.
All in all, this was a very impressive win for the Bruins. Indeed, they were very impressive throughout the Pac-10 Tournament and this should definitely help their standing with the Selection Committee for the NCAA Tournament. I predict that the Bruins will be awarded the #3 seed in the West Regional, matched up with #2 seed Gonzaga for a Sweet 16 showdown between the west coast's two premiere programs.