UCLA has had a great season. Nothing will erase its 29 wins or its first Pac-10 title and Pac-10 Tournament championship in 9 years. The Bruins achieved far more than respectability this season, on a team dominated by freshmen and sophomores and beset by injuries. The Bruins once again became a program in the national consciousness. Ben Howland brought UCLA Basketball back to being UCLA Basketball, and that is an accomplishment which no loss can diminish.
But nor can anyone deny that the Bruins were, going into the NCAA Tournament, 0-4 against top 20 teams. They had a win against a top 25 team because Nevada (Nevada?) somehow got ranked 24th in the final poll of the season. But Bruin fans had seen this situation before, in the first half against legit national powers Memphis and West Virginia, and in the second half against the Washington Huskies at Pauley Pavilion. When the going got tough, the Bruins proved themselves unequal to the task. They are a year ahead of schedule. Next year, this team is going to the Final 4. This year, the team made a series of remarkable accomplishments against lesser teams and laid the foundation for the future.
But right now we're in March, and the Bruins came out against a superb Gonzaga squad and in the first half they showed they didn't belong on the same floor as their opponent. The Bruins displayed a lack of poise, poor shooting, flawed decision-making and even less than full effort on the defensive end of the floor. Gonzaga didn't do anything special to beat the Bruins; they were just much better as a basketball team and more focused on executing the fundamentals of the game.
The Bruins came out firing ill-advised shots from 3 and missed their first 8 field goal attempts. The Bruins didn't make a basket until Arron Afflalo netted a spinning jumper in the lane at the 11:10 mark. By then, the Bruins had made 7 unforced turnovers and showed they had little in the way of defensive answers for Adam Morrison (12 first half points), JP Batista (10 points, 5 rebounds in the first half) or even Derek Raivio (10 first half points). On the offensive side of the court, the Bruins couldn‘t find any rhythm in attacking the Gonzaga 1-3-1 zone. On defense, the Bruins seemed to forget a year's worth of training and frequently found themselves out of position or unable to help a teammate out on a defensive lapse. The Bruins were playing d by reaching and grabbing a lot and put the Zags in the double bonus before 10 minutes had expired. Gonzaga built a 42-25 lead before giving up the last 4 points for a 13-point halftime lead, 42-29. The Zags had dominated the game in every aspect in which it can be played or analyzed. The Bulldogs hit 58% of their shots in the first half while UCLA hit just 26%.
The game was over . . . oh, excuse me, they played a second half! Why didn't someone tell me about that before I wrote my review of the game? Really, you'd think that someone would've mentioned…
That someone would have mentioned that UCLA Basketball is back with a vengeance and a never-say-die attitude which shows everyone why the NBA sucks and college basketball is the true sport of the 21st Century. Ben Howland isn't rebuilding for next year, he has an eye on a national title in April and someone is going to have to stomp on these Bruins, rip out their lungs, crush their hearts and hack their circulatory system and CNS into little bits before these Bruins are going to walk off the floor and concede a game to anyone. On Saturday night, the Bruins demonstrated the true meaning of team play and team spirit as they staged one of the most remarkable comebacks in the history of college basketball, defeating the Gonzaga Bulldogs 73-71.
UCLA outscored Gonzaga by 19 points over the last 22 minutes of the game, but still they trailed in the second half mostly by double-digits until under the 6-minute mark. Just as they had in the Memphis and West Virginia games, the Bruins staged a second-half comeback, displaying poise and teamwork on offense and outstanding effort and fundamentals on defense. Gonzaga had to work overtime and go to its stars, Morrison and Batista, again and again to maintain its lead. But the Bruins would simply not be denied.
They actually cut the lead to 6, 46-40, with about 15 minutes left to go, although I never believed that the Bruins could come back and win the game at that point and I doubt that many of even the most die-hard Bruin fans would have believed it, either. Batista and Morrison immediately responded with baskets and Gonzaga held a double digit lead until less than 6 minutes remained in the game. But unlike the first half, the Bruins were "UCLA" once more and everything those 4 letters once again represent now that Ben Howland is the head coach.
Jordan Farmar stopped thinking about the NBA and started playing like one of the best point guards in college basketball. Arron Afflalo shrugged off foul trouble and once again showed he can be a scoring star, at least for a half. Ced Bozeman played like a senior leader, making the right passes again and again and shutting Morrison down on defense. Luc Richard Mbah A Moute grabbed every rebound and showed once again that he is almost impossible to stop when he takes the ball to the rack with authority. Ryan Hollins played with the passion and poise he's discovered over the last 6 weeks in giving the Bruins their first inside presence in years. Darren Collison again showed that he can change a game at both ends with his quickness and poise. Mike Roll, Alfred Aboya and Lorenzo Mata all contributed at both ends of the floor as well. In the second half, the Bruins solved the Gonzaga zone with a high-post offense and dribble penetration and slowly but surely choked off Morrison and Batista until it was hard to tell if these guys were still on the court. UCLA scored the final 11 points of the game, overcoming a 71-62 deficit in the final 3:26.
Most of all, the Bruins demonstrated that a team of determined players committed to the same cause can overcome any obstacle on the way to victory. That is the lesson which Ben Howland has taught this basketball team. And the Bruins' heroic second-half play should in the final analysis have surprised no one. Ben Howland has taught this team to compete and never stop fighting until the final buzzer sounds. This team has a confidence and poise which can't be found even on the most senior-laden team in the nation. Let whatever doubts remained about this team be forever swept aside.
UCLA Basketball is back. America, watch out.
Oh, the final stats. CBS' television coverage made it impossible for me to keep track of the stats, but I'll borrow them from ESPN. Jordan Farmar had 15 points and 6 assists (5 assists in the second half and 0 turnovers in the second half). Afflalo had 15 points, 11 in the second half. Mbah A Moute finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Hollins had 12 and 8. Ced Bozeman contributed 4 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists and excellent d on Morrison down the stretch. Collison added all 5 of his points in a key stretch of the second half. Mata and Roll each scored 3 points and Aboya had 2.
Morrison scored 24 and Batista 18, but none in those final 5 minutes. Raivio managed 2 points in the second half to finish with 12 overall. Gonzaga shot 47% for the game, 36% for the second half. UCLA finished over 40% for the game, shooting 53% in the second half. UCLA made just 3 turnovers in the final 30 minutes of the game. So much for stats.
Wahoo! I know I'm not sleeping tonight. I don't know about you, but I'm already getting ready for the game on Saturday.